Awe and Self-Transcendence

It’s interesting how many of our everyday concerns look petty when viewed from outer space. Experiences that inspire awe in us can shift our perspective and lead us to look beyond what’s immediately in front of us.

The idea that awe changes us was the basis for a recent psychology study in which researchers asked people to consider things from outer space – or virtual outer space, anyway. In the study, people used virtual reality technology to look at Earth from space while they listened to an excerpt of Carl Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot.

As you might expect, seeing the Earth from space stirred feelings of awe in people. But it turns out it stirred a bunch of other emotions as well. These included greater gratitude, compassion, love and optimism, as well as a sense of connectedness.

Looking at the data more carefully, the researchers found that two changes in particular predicted these changes in other emotions: a heightened sense of connectedness, and more thoughts related to the self. In other words, but people thought about themselves more, but they also thought about themselves as being more connected to other people and the universe as a whole.

According to researchers, the emotions that come along with feelings of awe may have to do with a sense of self-transcendence. One thing we know about awe is that it’s an emotion that pulls us out of our individualistic perspectives – the more we wonder at how vast the universe is, the more we realize we’re relatively insignificant. As I wrote about a couple years ago, for example, experiencing awe also tends to increase people’s humility.

The latest study focused on how people’s emotions changed by seeing the Earth, virtually, from outer space. But as the researchers point out, similar changes might come with other awe-inspiring experiences, like seeing a scenic landscape. It may be that experiences providing this sense of self-transcendence have the power to improve our mental health, and maybe even make us better people.