Feeling Small in the Face of Nature Makes People More Generous

Awe, yeah

milky way
Scott Stulberg/Corbis

From the majestic towers of Monument Valley to the stars painted on the ceiling of Grand Central Station, awe-inspiring wonders are all around. Sometimes taking a moment to stop and appreciate something like the Grand Canyon or a clear, starry night can make you feel like a tiny part of a massive universe swirling around. And that sensation of being a small speck might actually make you a kinder, more generous person.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines awe as “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.” According to new research by teams from University of California Berkeley and UC Irvine, experiencing awe might make people help each other out more.

"Our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function,” said Paul Piff, an assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at UC Irvine, in a statement. “By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others."

After exposing participants to images of nature (and video clips from the BBC series Planet Earth), Piff and his team asked questions measuring ethical behavior and generosity. Those who reported feeling a sense of awe or recalled a time when they felt awe demonstrated more ethical behavior as opposed to someone who felt pride, writes Adam Hoffman for the Greater Good Science Center.

This wasn’t just about pretty images of animals: after all, awe is defined partly by the fear one feels in the face of something larger than themselves. In fact, the same generous behavior was observed in people who were shown scenes of natural disasters, writes Hoffman. Whether it was watching scenes of the Amazonian rainforest or a violent volcanic eruption, participants were more willing to share resources with each other afterwards.

Awe doesn’t just inspire ethical behavior. Recent studies suggest that experiencing awe may boost your immune system and make you feel more creative, too. It can even make you feel that you have more time to get things done.

“When people experience awe they really want to share that experience with other people, suggesting that it has this particularly viral component to it,” Piff tells Hoffman. “Maybe this is yet another way that awe binds people together — by causing people to want to share their positive experiences collectively with one another.”

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