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Everyday awe: Science's answer to your search for happiness

A silhouette stretches his arms in happiness. (August Brill/Flickr)
A silhouette stretches his arms in happiness. (August Brill/Flickr)

John Reynolds has lived in Yosemite National Park his entire life. He’s dwelled among the park’s magnificent sites, like Yosemite Falls.

“You really get a sense for how insignificant you are and how amazing Mother Nature is because of the wind that it creates and the mist,” he says.

“It truly gives a sense of awe.”

It’s that feeling beyond happiness. Past wonder, to the sublime.

And it turns out, feeling awe can transform not only your soul … but your brain, as well.

“Awe, as powerfully as any state you can pinpoint, shifts you to being [open] and engaged and curious about the world,” Dacher Keltner says.

Today, On Point: The science behind why we all need to seek and experience more awe.

Guests

Dacher Keltner, founding director of the Greater Good Science Center. Professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Host of The Science of Happiness podcast. Author of Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.

Also Featured

John O. Reynolds, former postmaster of Yosemite National Park.

Transcript

Part I

JOHN REYNOLDS: Every day when I walk down, I think my first sensation is the air. I take in these gulps of air into my lungs and it just oh, it’s better than coffee. It just rejuvenates you.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Oh, John Reynolds. I do envy him. He has lived in California’s Yosemite National Park his entire life.

Born and raised, he says. his mother worked at the Yosemite Post Office for 43 years. So John grew up in Yosemite Village and there’s an absolutely adorable picture of him on the Sierra News website of John as a toddler, smiling and sitting on the steps of a Yosemite Village building. Later when he grew up, he joined the post office and worked there for 44 years, 10 years as postmaster. And John Reynolds just retired this week.

Congratulations to you, John. But John tells us he’s not going anywhere. He’s going to stay right where he is in Yosemite and continue his morning ritual in that first steps from his home. He pauses, takes deep breaths, and acknowledges the wonder around him.

REYNOLDS: In that 45 second walk, it just inspires me for the day because I go, “Man, look where I work.” I always turn around and look at Yosemite Falls on my way down cause it’s Yosemite Falls back to me as I’m walking down to the post office. It almost looks like a painting.

It’s hard to articulate, there’s a cascade in between the upper and lower falls, and then as you walk to the base of the Lower Falls, you really get a sense of how insignificant you are and how amazing Mother Nature is because of the wind that it creates, the mist, it truly gives a sense of awe. And I’m struggling to find the word for it, but I don’t know how many times I’ve walked up to the top of falls in my life, but I’m still blown away by it all.

The smell of pine is always prevalent. At the height of spring when the snow is melting, the reverberation of Yosemite Falls makes the doors rattle in our house. And so that makes me smile and the power and the majesty of everything, of, I don’t even have to see it. I can hear it through the doors.

I go, “Oh my God, the falls must be really moving. The doors are really rattling today.”

Coming from the west driving eastward, it’s a beautiful canyon drive where the road follows that meanders along the Merced River. And then once you hit the boundary, you start seeing the granite formations that the glaciers have carved out, and then you drive further into the valley after you pass the boundary, and that’s when Yosemite Valley really starts to unfold.

I notice people that come up to the park, they’ll see a spot and it’s like they don’t even know they’re driving. They just stop. You can get agitated, but you have to understand what these people are possibly experiencing for the first time. Is this incredible view that they’re just stopped in their tracks.

And they’re like, “Oh my God, I got to stop.” And they get out. Take a picture, even though they’re blocking the road. But I’ve come to a place where, you know I smile at it because I know exactly what they’re going through. They’re having an experience of seeing Yosemite for the first time in these incredible monoliths and the full effect of the enormity of it.

I’ve spent 63 years here in the valley. I can walk out in the valley, and you can always see something here that you haven’t noticed before. It fills the spirit. And I think nature does that. I think it brings inspiration, it brings joy, it brings spirituality, it brings hope for the world, I guess.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s John Reynolds. After 44 years working for the post office in Yosemite National Park, he retired just this week. Giving him more time to see things in the park that he hadn’t noticed before. And oh my goodness, John, suddenly I’m thinking about John Muir and the mountains are calling and I must go.

You know how John said that being in Yosemite truly gives him a sense of awe, that even struggled to find the words for it. Today we’re going to talk about that, about awe, that wondrous, vast feeling that John talked about. Because it turns out awe affects not only our souls, but even our brains and our bodies.

Joining us now is Dacher Keltner. He’s the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s also the host of “The Science of Happiness” podcast. Author of “Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.

Professor Keltner, welcome to you.

DACHER KELTNER: It’s great to be with you, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: I got to know, have you been to Yosemite, and experienced what John talked about?

KELTNER: Oh, many times. It’s a sacred place. And as are many places in the High Sierras and many places around the world, sources of awe. What’s your number one awe inspiring spot?

Probably with respect to nature, Evolution Valley in the high Sierras. It’s like Yosemite, it’s granite and stars and moons and trees. But one of the things that I learned from studying awe all these years is also other people, the moral beauty and kindness and courage of people around me just brings tears to my eyes when I think about students at UC Berkeley, overcoming obstacles to get a degree.

There’s a lot of awe to experience.

CHAKRABARTI: So when you, Professor Keltner are personally having that experience of awe, what does it feel like to you? What’s happening in you?

KELTNER: What we’ve learned scientifically is how I feel during awe, much like John Reynolds, has this fascinating brain body profile of I have a sense of being quiet and that I’m small and insignificant and find peace in that, I feel I’m aware of kind of big things that I’m part of. And then in the body I tear up quite readily, and I suspect a lot of our listeners do. I get the chills. I feel a warmth in my chest. And those are all mind and body markers of this state that’s often so hard to describe with words, but science is making a lot of progress in figuring it out.

CHAKRABARTI: For me it’s the experience of a moment beyond language, that I think I encounter. Because you just stand there, whether it’s nature or as you said before, someone who’s inspiring you, and you just think I don’t have the words.

KELTNER: Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: And I wonder, why is that? Because human beings are pretty communicative, we can find a lot of words for different emotions.

KELTNER: (LAUGHS) And by the way, one of the things I noticed when I was writing this book, “Awe,” is people write about awe all the time, but they’re convinced it’s hard to describe.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS)

KELTNER: In some ways it is. But I think part of the reason that language fails is so much of language is in service of the here and now and the self and all of our strivings and goals. And awe, by very definition, is about these vast systems that we could be part of, a spiritual system, an ecosystem, a cultural system and it’s harder to describe those things in words and so we struggle to find a word, or a set of words, that I’m part of this ecosystem in Yosemite, or somehow my emotions resemble the tones and sounds of this symphony.

That’s hard to describe with language, but if you take a little while and find the right phrasing, you can do it.

CHAKRABARTI: I’m glad you mentioned that. It’s not just in encounters with nature that we can experience. We’re going to talk more about the other moments and ways that people touch this sublime experience. But I do have to say that, in listening to John talk about Yosemite and listening to you talk about the Sierras, last summer I was hiking in Glacier National Park to Grinnell Glacier. And there’s just a moment where the valley below you opens up and you see this spectacular turquoise water of one of the glacial lakes in the park and the mountains rising up behind.

And I was with my family and we all, just it’s what John described. You just stop. Because all of a sudden you feel like you are transported beyond something that is normally of the realm of human experience. And to me that’s one of the indicators of awe. It’s just oh, this is something beyond what the sort of normal quotidian world of being alive as a human is.

KELTNER: Yeah, it is. In thinking about how do we define this mysterious, ineffable emotion, I think there are two key elements and you nailed it, Meghna. Which is, the first is it’s vast, but really more accurately, it’s beyond my frame of reference, right? I have an understanding of how big things are, how fast they move, et cetera.

And awe transcends those characteristics. And it could even be, by the way, small. Sometimes when people first look into a microscope, they’re like, “Oh my god, my saliva has animals in it,” or whatever it is, it’s beyond our frame of reference, and then it’s mysterious, you just can’t make sense of it.

With your current understanding of the world and it begs discovery and exploration.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. But the thing about awe, which it makes it really distinctly different from feeling inspired or even not just happiness, but happiness, as far as I understand is, I’m just like looking at the strict dictionary definition of it and it’s this sensation of wonder inspired by the sacred or sublime.

But then it also, the dictionary definition includes an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and sometimes even terror. I think spiritual writings of awe, sacred texts often invoke this sort of, it’s so massive, so huge. We are so insignificant that in a state of awe, there is, you quake as well.

KELTNER: Yeah. That is true. Fear is part of most experiences of awe. Because awe, ultimately, calls into question our knowledge. It raises questions about the certainty of our understanding. One of the things that’s important to remember is that words have histories. The etymology of the word awe goes back to the eighth and ninth century old English and Norse, where it really was a dreadful, fearful time.

And today, people feel much less fear in awe. And you can really differentiate fear from terror, awe from terror, quite readily. So it’s its own positive emotion.

Part II 

CHAKRABARTI: Today, we are talking about experiencing awe in our lives and what happens in our minds and bodies when we do. So I’m joined by Dacher Keltner. He’s the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of “Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life.

And Professor Keltner, I have to say, we got a lot of listeners who shared stories with us about moments of awe in their lives. This is Jamie from St. Paul, Minnesota, and Jamie talked to us about how he’s not that big a fan of art. But then he went to Florence, Italy and saw Michelangelo’s sculpture of David in person, and he recalls how he felt before he went to see it this way.

JAMIE: Pretty hesitant about how impactful it would be given how many photos I had seen and assumed it would just be a similar experience to seeing it in photos, but walking into that room where it stands was truly awesome in a way I’ve never experienced. Completely breathtaking and striking the scale, the detail, the history that was wrapped up in the piece totally changed my perspective on looking at pieces of art in that kind of way.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Jamie from St. Paul Minnesota, and here’s Greg from Wayne, Nebraska, who left us a VoxPop message about a time when he toured the nation’s largest steel recycler and saw an electric arc furnace.

GREG: It’s this giant bowl. They put almost, of train loads worth of steel in, and then drop this huge electric diode in, that’s almost the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

And when we were touring it, just the amount of power that went through, there was almost a burning bush moment for me where you just want to drop to your knees and acknowledge that there’s more to this world than you knew. There’s guys that work at this plant every day, and I’ve talked to ’em about this and they’re like, “Yeah, man.

Like it’s just a normal Tuesday for us.” And so just one of the things that I’ve taken away from it is being a little bit more akin to the awesomeness that’s around us in the world and just trying to really appreciate everything that is around us.

CHAKRABARTI: I got to thank Greg for that story because yeah, for some folks it’s a normal Tuesday and for others it’s an awe-inspiring moment.

I love that. Now, professor Keltner, I wanted to ask you actually, you have the “Science of Happiness” podcast. You’ve been intensely researching happiness for a long time. What made you curious about expanding that investigation into awe?

KELTNER: Yeah. One is just simple scientific curiosity. Awe has a long history in our culture.

People have written about it in spiritual experiences and nature experiences, psychedelic experiences today and a lot of great thinkers from Einstein to Descartes to, Rachel Carson really feel that awe is a defining human emotion. It is one of our most human of tendencies.

So I was just interested in scientifically, and I also, Meghna got interested in it in terms of health and wellbeing. When you find a little moment of awe listening to music, getting outdoors, looking at Greg’s arc furnace, whatever it is, your immune system looks a little better.

Your cardiovascular functioning’s better. You have a sense of more time, you feel less stressed and physical pain, so why not think about the deep sources of an emotion that’s as good for us as almost any emotion you can pursue.

CHAKRABARTI: Do you also have some, personal connection to this?

KELTNER: Oh my God, yeah. Yeah. I was raised to study awe scientifically, my dad’s a visual artist and loved Goya, and so had all these horrifying paintings on our walls. And my mom taught romanticism and poetry and Virginia Woolf, lots of awe. I was raised in the late ’60s in a wild place, Laurel Canyon, and just awe was all around me.

And in particular the humanities version. But I was a skeptical scientist kid, and so I thought, “Hey, let’s study this emotion that so many people feel is hard to capture and see what science can tell us.”

CHAKRABARTI: I was wondering if you wanted to talk about your brother a little bit.

KELTNER: Yeah. Thank you, Meghna. We at Berkeley and other places have been studying on learning about where it comes from and how it makes us cooperative. And like John Reynolds said, it really puts ourselves into perspective. We don’t feel so overwhelmed by the ego and feel we’re, in a good way, insignificant in the big scheme of things.

So I knew all this science, and then five years ago, my brother Rolf got colon cancer. It emerged, and four years ago he left this world. And Meghna, he and I had this brotherhood of sharing all kinds of awe from backpacking to trips, to dancing, sporting events and the like.

And without him I was feeling aweless. And so I went on a journey and what I write about in this book of like, how can I, like many people in grief and many people suffering, how can I find awe? Where, what can I return to that’s familiar that will bring me strength, like the Sierras?

What kind of conversation should I have and experiences that are new, like with ministers and in symphonies, where will I find a moral compass in the awe of moral beauty? So it was a very personal inquiry writing this book.

CHAKRABARTI: I wonder what you had felt that you had lost when you were in that state of awe-lessness.

KELTNER: Yeah. One of the things that happens when you lose beloved people and they pass is you lose their voice, and you lose their mind, and you lose their way of seeing the world. And when my brother Rolf passed away, I lost his view of the kindness, the everyday kindness of people, which he had a genius for, and he had this comic absurdity that just brought into perspective the insignificance of things we do.

He himself worked with kids. He was a speech therapist in a very poor county in the foothills of the Sierras in California. Where kids were constantly overcoming obstacles in, in awe-inspiring ways. And I lost that. I lost all of his gifts of awe to me, and like a lot of people in grief, you have to reconstruct and reinvent your life.

And so mine happened to be, I’ve lost all the ways in which he led me to awe.

CHAKRABARTI: I’m very sorry about your brother’s passing.

KELTNER: Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Keltner. But I know exactly what you mean, when we lose someone we love. I think you put it so beautifully. We lose the sight that they gave us.

We lose their way of experiencing the world and it’s hard to feel like you can ever get it back. So we will talk about how to reclaim those gifts a little bit later. But I did promise about talking about regarding the science of awe. First of all, how do you even go about measuring it or deciding how, what the scientific tools you’re going to use to measure what seems to be this like again, sublime, ephemeral state of being?

KELTNER: Yeah. And we made many humbling mistakes. I remember one of our first studies, we brought this giant screen into the lab, and we showed these Berkeley engineers fractal videos and they’re like, “This is ridiculous.”

But we’ve learned a lot. So you can ask people how much awe they feel, you can measure little goosebumps. The chills that run up your back, and your head that are a sign of awe. You can measure certain kinds of tears that arise during awe. One of the things that we did that was really profound for me in writing this book is to ask people to tell stories of awe, like we’re hearing from Jamie and Greg. What’s the experience like for you? And this was inspired by William James, where he really wanted to understand the mystical experience by gathering stories. And then importantly, Meghna, we got outside of the lab.

We studied people at Yosemite, we studied people at dance. We studied people in musical venues, up on, with big views looking, overlooking the Bay near big trees. Get people out where they really feel it and then see what unfolds.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Hang on for a second. Different kinds of tears.

 

KELTNER: Yeah. Yeah. No, it is fascinating. There are many different kinds of tears. One has this feeling that arises when you see people join cause or become community. Two competing athletes hugging each other. A child embracing a veteran dad who runs into the classroom.

The sense of communion is registered in a kind of tear produced by what’s called the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system, which is just a part of your neurophysiology physiology in your body that helps you connect and engage with others. And so the tears of awe are really about sensing the creation of community, which is really fascinating.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so because I was wondering, are they chemically different?

KELTNER: We don’t know. I suspect they are. They’re produced by different branches of the nervous system, so they’re probably chemical differences too.

CHAKRABARTI: but we don’t yet know. Okay.

KELTNER: Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. So then you’ve also researched and written about other measurable effects in the body when we’re experiencing awe.

You had mentioned some of them earlier, but I’d like to go in them into more detail. Let’s talk about the immune system. It can quiet inflammation?

KELTNER: Yeah, this one’s really important. And the immune system is this complicated network of cells distributed throughout your body that protects the insides of your body from harmful things outside.

And one of the systems in the immune system’s called the cytokine system. It sends out particular cells that attack pathogens that are harmful to the body. And the effects of the cytokine system are it heats up your body and we call it the inflammation system, right? Heats it up, makes you feel sluggish, depressed.

It’s what you have when you’re having a flu and we’re learning from a lot of health science that chronically elevated inflammation. Produced by the cytokine system is really bad for you. It’s hard on the heart. It’s related to diabetes, autoimmune disease, depression, and the like. And we’ve done research showing, as have scientists in Japan and South Korea, that feelings of awe cool down the inflammation response.

And that is important, because it tells us in the many different ways in which we feel awe, it repairs, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, our bodies. It is, it’s like taking a great set of vitamins, or better.

CHAKRABARTI: Amazing. I want to play a quick clip from another listener who shared a moment of awe. I just love the variety that of experiences that people have brought to us.

This is Eric from Seattle, Washington left us a VoxPop message about what happened to him in 2017. Now, what happened then? Total solar eclipse, which he viewed with his family in Oregon.

ERIC: Seeing the eclipse in its totality is completely different than seeing it even at 99%. I haven’t seen a photograph that can accurately capture the experience.

It was beautiful to see, but it felt like it accessed part of our brain that hadn’t been accessed in a very long time. That part that experiences something new that doesn’t even necessarily make any sense. And that was absolutely a feeling of awe.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Eric who left us that message from Seattle, Washington. Now Professor Keltner, I love how Eric put it, like access to part of our brain. So let’s talk about other body systems here. Yeah, we talked about inflammation in the immune system. What about cardiac and nervous system?

KELTNER: Yeah, Eric’s onto something really significant that we’re just starting to understand scientifically, which is studies from Japan and Holland and the United States are finding sources of awe, be it nature, music or even psychedelics, will deactivate the default mode network. Which neuroscientists believe there are big chunks of your prefrontal cortex in the side of your brain, are really where self-related processes are occurring, right? Memory and self-criticism and staying on task.

We’re overrun by the default mode network in our lives. Or too much thinking about who we are and ourselves. And awe quiets that default mode network down and opens us up to what Eric talks about. “Wow, I’m seeing the world in a much different way, as part of these holistic systems or things that I can be part of, or a sense of community we haven’t experienced.” As Eric says, that sense of relatedness to things bigger than the self as much as we should.

And then down below the brainstem, we have studies showing that awe activates the vagus nerve. And the vagus nerve is this hot area of inquiry in social science. It’s a big bundle of nerves. The largest in the mammalian nervous system that starts in your face and spinal cord, moves through your throat, helps you look at people, vocalize.

Then nerves drop into your heart and lungs, slows the heart rate, deepens breathing, gets into your digestive organs. And the best statement about the vagus nerve is it enables social engagement and openness. So you put those two findings together and it says, “These brief experiences of awe make me forget about the self in a liberating moment or two, and opens me up to the world, right?

Opens me to people. And ideas and the natural environment around me.”

CHAKRABARTI: How is this different than feeling intense happiness? Because some of the physical and neurological reactions you’re talking about sound familiar. Or there’s overlap with other experiences that we have.

KELTNER: Yeah. Currently, the field is really, happiness is a broader state of, “Do I like life?

Do I feel good about it?” Underneath that you can differentiate that broad state into probably 10 distinct positive emotions. Of emotions like amusement and love and desire and compassion and interest, gratitude and awe. And interestingly, awe is primarily, it feels good. It feels expansive. It feels agentic and power.

It’s like I’m doing good for the world. So we can differentiate awe in how we express it in the voice and face, a little bit of neurophysiology from most other positive emotions. It is, Descartes and a lot of great thinkers have felt that this state of awe is this basic state of consciousness or mind or feeling.

And I think the news studies I review in the book tell us they’re onto something.

CHAKRABARTI: And how long do these feelings last?

KELTNER: And can we make them last forever? Yeah.

(LAUGHS)

Yeah. That’s one of the mysteries of this field. It’s so fascinating, Meghna, when people have big experiences of awe.

So let’s say, they have an awe experience at a festival in college or a musical event, and we study awe in music, or a spiritual experience. They will tell you, “I still feel it now. It lasted for a long time.” And the best we know is they can last a week to several months and change how we relate to the world.

CHAKRABARTI: I’m always looking for the long tail on experiences that can positively transform us. For me, all it takes, yeah, it’s been less than a year, but speaking of that Grinnell Glacier hike, all I have to do is close my eyes. And I’m sensing it all over again. So when we come back, professor Keltner, we’re gonna talk more about the everyday wonder part of your research and why and how we can access that more often.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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