Many astronauts, most recently those in the International Space Station, spend much of their free time “earth gazing.” Their descriptions of the emotional impact of viewing the earth from space border on the poetic.
In interviews and articles, nearly all of them admit to crying because of the beauty of the Earth. They’ve described it as a “living, breathing organism … [that] at the same time looks extremely fragile.”
This experience has been dubbed the “overview effect” and has many shared characteristics with the “earth-bound” experience of awe.
Our experience of awe
According to researchers, awe is most frequently triggered by nature, art, music, and even by the inspiring or heroic actions of others. It can also be experienced when confronted with destructive forces of nature, such as a storm or a raging fire.
But does this emotion change us in any meaningful way? The astronauts claim that it changed the way they view their place in the cosmos and their relationship to the planet and all the people on it.
The impact of awe
Two particular emotions accompanying a sense of awe have been described in psychological literature:
“the feeling of being diminished in the presence of something greater than the self and the motivation to be good to others.”
The second might come as a surprise, but science appears to confirm that after experiencing awe, individuals are inspired to be more altruistic.
How can science measure awe?
Scientists have developed a tool to measure awe. It is called the Awe Experience Scale or AWE-S. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University employed factor analysis to the answers of hundreds of questions about experiences of awe, which allowed them to create a psychometric scale to rate these kinds of experiences.
Even before this tool was developed, at least one study confirmed that experiencing awe inspires people to help others. Dr. Paul K. Piff at UC Irvine and several colleagues tested their hypothesis: “Awe can result in a diminishment of the individual self and its concerns,” and, as a result, promote altruistic behavior.
They conducted five different experiments and the results allowed them to conclude that the experience of awe did in fact change the participants’ behaviors–promoting generosity, helping behavior, and ethical decision making.
So step outside. Watch the sunrise. Listen to the birds. Gaze up at the stars at night.
How will awe inspire you to change?