Issue 03 of our print magazine is available to buy now

Issue 03 is available to buy now

No Hard Feelings: Awe
No Hard Feelings

No Hard Feelings: Awe

It's emotion, not logic, that guides much of the way we do business. Our new series explores the what, why and how of different emotions across our work and personal lives.
28th Mar 2024

Awe (n.) A feeling of reverential respect, mixed with wonder or fear, typically as inspired by a person of great authority, accomplishments, or (from the 18th century) by the power or beauty of the natural world. From Old English ege, meaning “terror, dread, awe” and Greek áchos, meaning “pain.”

Famously felt by: William Anders, Apollo 8 Astronaut and photographer who captured the Earthrise photo: “We set out to explore the moon and instead discovered the Earth.”

Famously not felt by: Eeyore in Winnie The Pooh. “Could be worse. Not sure how, but it could be.” 

Awe is in vogue. Chasing the feeling has become a popular pursuit in recent years; ask Dacher Keltner fans, or anyone up to date with the latest wellbeing advice. Experiencing awe has become something worth spending money, time and effort on. 

Ask a couple of experts what awe really is, and you’re likely to get a few different answers. It’s defined by some as a sense of reverence, wonder and fear. Others neglect to define the feeling itself, merely characterising it as a phenomenon that occurs in the presence of something greater than ourselves that challenges our understanding of the world around us. You’d be forgiven for feeling at a loss of understanding what, precisely, you should be chasing when pursuing a sense of awe

But the somewhat slippery and nebulous nature of the concept is perhaps rooted in its past – a history more complicated, layered and intentionally mysterious than one might expect. Our understanding of awe has not always been an exclusively positive one, but more importantly, seeking any sort of understanding at all is perhaps missing the point. 

You’d be forgiven for feeling at a loss of understanding what, precisely, you should be chasing when pursuing a sense of awe. 

Awe, in the original sense of the word, was steeped in ideas of fear, dread and terror. Though hard to believe that’s something anyone is desperate to pursue as part of a wellbeing plan, the origins of awe are inextricably linked to religion. 

The modern definitions contextualise the feeling as occurring in the presence of something greater than us – for many, that now means a mountain range, space or the ocean – but in the 12th century, that something was unequivocally God. 

Initially, the meaning of the word was purely based in fear: “fear, terror or dread (without any element or mixture of reverence, respect or wonder implied)”. To “stand awe” literally meant to be fearful or terrified. 

It wasn’t until around 200 years later that a sense of profound reverence for the divine was mixed into the fear and terror. And it would take another 200 years until it wasn’t just the divine that could inspire the feeling. 

By the 17th century, awe became commonly understood as referring not just to profound and divine reverence, but also to the respect, wonder and fear “inspired by a person of great authority, accomplishments” and then from the 18th century, “by the power or beauty of the natural world”. 

The gradual coalescence of awe and nature coincided with The Enlightenment and a general desire to understand life’s great mysteries. Despite our increased interest in intellectualising or pursuing it, little academic research has been conducted into the phenomenon. 

In one of the first in-depth pieces of research, ‘The Nature of Awe’ (2007), Shiota, Keltner, and Mossman found that participants described awe almost exclusively through positive experiences, despite most agreed upon definitions encompassing both the positive and negative (we derive both “awful” and “awesome” from the word). 

For many, that now means a mountain range, space or the ocean – but in the 12th century, that something was unequivocally God. 

More interestingly still, they also found that the feeling of awe may have roots older than religion, instead linked to group survival: “shifts in neurophysiology, a diminished focus on the self, increased prosocial relationality, greater social integration, and a heightened sense of meaning.”

The research showed that experiencing awe reshapes one’s self-perception, promotes prosocial actions and strengthens the sense of connection to humanity. Other psychologists have also defined awe by its ability to situate us in symbiosis with the surrounding universe. 20th century neuropsychologist Paul Pearsall defined awe as the “overwhelming and bewildering sense of connection with a startling universe that is usually far beyond the narrow band of our consciousness”. 

But awe, with its divine – and therefore incomprehensible – origins, continues to resist an exact dissection. 

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe … the starry heavens above and the moral law within.”

Immanuel Kant

For instance, why is it that a piece of music can give someone the same feeling as looking at the stars? While Keltner may have popularised the topic with his ‘eight kinds of awe’ (namely nature, music, art, spirituality, moral beauty and more lofty sources) philosophers have been querying it for centuries. 

Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Practical Reason (1788) says that the twice in his life he had been most filled with awe were when observing “the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me” – one highly distinct from the other. He goes on to say: “I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence.” 

Perhaps awe is about knowing – or not knowing – our place in a larger universe. Its true power is in making us feel significant and insignificant all at the same time. 

Further reading on awe