By John I. Kennedy Jr, MD

Well Be Wisdom

In his book, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, physicist Alan Lightman describes a profound experience. On a clear night he reclined in a small boat off the shore from his summer retreat to gaze at the stars. As he surveyed the night sky, he had an out-of-body experience, a feeling of being connected to the stars, to something far larger than himself. Lightman had an experience of awe. The experience led him to write the book, sharing his subsequent musings about how the scientific pursuit to understand the universe can sometimes distract us from its awesome beauty.

Awe has not always been included in the listings of primary human emotions, but psychologists are beginning to investigate it. A definition of awe that is sometimes used is these studies is that awe is a feeling of being in the presence of something so vast that it is beyond understanding.

A recent article by Hope Reese in the New York Times points to some of the benefits of the experience of awe, noting the work of Dr. Dacher Keltner. Drawing from the studies of Keltner and others, Reese points to several benefits that have been associated with such experiences, including broadening the scope of a person’s attention, increased awareness of others, and an increase feeling of connectedness to others. All these effects are associated with an increased satisfaction with life.

The observation of these positive outcomes prompts me to seek out such experiences for myself. That is, I feel the urge to be “awe-full.” Fortunately, our psychologist colleagues have identified the following ways to increase our experience of awe:

Pay attention. Pause to notice the things around you. Zoom in and out on your surroundings to reframe the picture.

Focus on the moral beauty of others. Notice the small acts of kindness that happen around you.

Choose the unfamiliar path. Novelty can often elicit awe. Try taking a new route to work or listening to a different type of music.

I am going to strive to practice these behaviors. Join me and share your experiences. Let’s have an awe-full 2023.


January 27, 2022