Why Seeking "Awe" (Rather Than Happiness) Enhances Every Part Of Your Life

August 31, 2023

The Western world—especially anglophone world—lives for happiness. We use the world repeatedly throughout the day: “Happy to be here,” “are you happy?” “I just want to be happy,” etc. I also remember how the French equivalent, “je suis contente,” seemed so much milder than “I am happy.” We English speakers don’t want to settle for being content—we want to feel buoyant and ecstatic!

But for all our seeking, happiness eludes us. A widely reported 2020 poll found that only 14% of Americans considered themselves “very happy.” While it was taken during the height of COVID, the downward trend from the 70s all the way to present decade was undeniable. There are macro and micro reasons aplenty. We’re living in a tenuous era beset by the worst struggles humanity has ever known. Our planetary degradation, war and violence, increasing natural disasters, and injustices would snap anyone’s nerves. Then there’s the fact that the more we chase what we believe makes us happy, the more we feel it’s not enough. How many of us have chased the high of being pretty, successful, or admired enough, only to discover that it’s just not that great once we have it?

a person wearing a red jacket stands on top of a dramatic natural arch over the sea.

This is where awe comes in.

What is awe?

Awe is an often-overlooked emotion that we experience when we encounter or undergo something greater than us. It can challenge our understanding or perception of the world. It is similar to an epiphany—a revelation you have about the world or self.

How does awe affect us?

Experiencing awe enhances critical thinking, creativity, physical health, a sense of connectedness, and pro-social behaviors such as kindness and self-sacrifice. In one study by the University of Notre Dame and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill researchers, workers reported about 5,000 dream recalls. Those who recalled and found meaning in dreams reported better productivity, even accounting for the quality of sleep.

The researchers posit that the reason for this boost is awe. “Awe often borders on the extremes or upper bounds of other emotions, for example, when people experience profound gratitude or admiration. Dreams are conceptually vast experiences that have a striking capacity to elicit feelings of awe,” says study lead author Casher Belinda of Notre Dame.

How to reap the benefits of awe

I can attest from personal experience that awe-inspiring dreams have always fueled my productivity and creativity. Dreams are where I do some of my best problem-solving! In order to have the best dreams, focus on getting a good night’s sleep—because when you’re most deeply asleep (REM) is when you’ll have the most meaningful and memorable dreams. Also try keeping a dream journal where you jot down what you remember as soon as you wake up. “Recording dreams gives them repeated opportunities to elicit beneficial emotions and make connections between dreams.”

Other ways to increase awe in your life

We all know those “one with nature” feels. Step into the great outdoors and immerse yourself in nature. Embrace the fall foliage. Spend a day at a museum, listen to live music, read a great book, go to the theater. Watch an amazing nature or scientific documentary (thanks, Planet Earth!). Even watching an amazing athletic performance can elicit awe. It’s whatever gives you goosebumps and “wow” response.

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Photo: Austin Neill via Unsplash


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