Finding Awe Amid Everyday Splendor

Credits

Henry Wismayer is a writer based in London.

Photography by Lucas Foglia for Noema Magazine.

We were halfway down the Point Reyes peninsula when Dacher Keltner wandered off-trail. He stopped at an outcrop of granite boulders, where the ground fell away toward Driftwood Beach and the wide, open Pacific beyond. A coastal fog bank was moving in, shrouding the horizon. Wisps of condensation swept up and over the promontory, bathing my legs in cold air. Out west, the sun was starting to drop into the ocean, its beams casting a wide band of light on the water. The reflected shards glimmered through the vapor in the far distance, producing an irresistible illusion of endlessness.

“I love that highway of sun,” I said to Keltner, who was standing on my left, looking out to sea.

“Yeah, that’s very nice,” he replied in a slow, portentous way, which I took to imply that I should stop commentating. And then we stood in silence for a long time. 

“I’m 60, so I need to pee,” Keltner said suddenly, striding off down the slope. “It’s the great antagonist of awe in later life!”

With that, the moment passed. Where did I go in that pregnant quiet before the intervention of Keltner’s bladder? Something had certainly stirred. Watching the interplay of sun and sea, I’d felt enlivened, gently electrified. The ocean, in its immensity and unseen depths, seemed to harbor hidden meaning. 

It was at this point that a traditional account of a brush with awe might end. There were feelings. They were deep, they were ungraspable. God knows why. But I knew that Keltner was going to argue that I’d just experienced something altogether more tangible. 

“To experience awe, to fully open ourselves up to it, helps us to live happier, healthier lives.”

For the last two decades, Keltner, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, has been a leading light of a scientific movement to examine our least-understood emotional state in all its gauzy complexity. His latest book, “Awe,” describes two decades of research and arrives at a radical conclusion. Far from being an undefinable caprice, awe, to Keltner, is a panacea, an evolutionary tool that holds the key to humanity’s capacity to flourish in groups.

On an average day, a person might come to a place like Point Reyes without feeling anything more profound than a slight unburdening of the soul. But if you lean into that feeling even for just a moment, the benefits can be manifold. Proponents of this new science believe that experiencing awe may be an essential pathway to physical and mental well-being. By taking us out of ourselves and expanding our sense of time, it counteracts the self-focus and narcissism that is the root of so much modern disenchantment. To experience awe, to fully open ourselves up to it, helps us to live happier, healthier lives. 

The lightning-in-a-bottle sensation that had fizzed through me at the viewpoint is the keystone of religious devotion and the wellspring of human curiosity. It’s a feeling that inspires our desire to seek novelty, to see and make art, to gather in celebration, in worship and in grief.

According to Keltner’s book, seeking “brief moments of awe is as good for your mind and body as anything you might do.”

Keltner reappeared next to me on the escarpment. “Shall we continue?” he asked.

Dacher Keltner in the eucalyptus grove on the UC Berkeley campus. (Lucas Foglia for Noema Magazine)

The word “awe” derives from the Old Norse “agi” and the Old English “ege,” both of which denoted feelings of fear or terror. Its modern English derivative evolved to encapsulate a more nuanced emotion, one in which that same medieval dread mingles with a sense of pleasing, almost euphoric, overwhelm.

During the Scientific Revolution in Europe, awe fell into vogue as an explosion of discovery prompted fascination in all that remained inexplicable and out of reach. Europe’s wealthy developed a fashion for wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosities, collections of esoteric miscellanea from around the world. These displays, which often included animal specimens, arcane artworks and scientific instruments, were partly an ostentation: a show of their owner’s discernment. But they were also a cognitive tool. Awe, and its milder cousin “wonder,” had come to be seen as an aesthetic prompt for the inquiring mind. 

In 1757, the Irish political philosopher Edmund Burke revolutionized the intellectual contemplation of awe with his celebrated “Philosophical Enquiry,” in which he described the distinction between beauty and “the sublime,” a de facto synonym for awe. Burke argued that the sublime was “our strongest passion.” It could often stem from sensory impression, but it differed from beauty in that it also required a note of astonishment, the hint of threat. “Terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close,” he wrote.

Soon, this blossoming interest in wonder would give rise to great literary movements. In Europe, the Romantic poets found lofty words to echo the rarefied feelings of the awestruck soul. America’s transcendentalists struck out into the woods and mountains of New England to seek sanctity in the everyday. 

“For trailblazers and heretics, awe was a driving force, the handmaiden of revelation.”

Such thinking was at once a retort to the burgeoning fields of empirical science and a source of inspiration for some of its most famous exponents. In his history of the Romantic scientists, “The Age of Wonder,” the biographer Richard Holmes quotes an early poem by William Wordsworth, in which he describes a statue of Isaac Newton in terms that transform him from scholarly philomath to dauntless navigator, “Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.”

William Herschel’s maps of the cosmos; Alexander von Humboldt’s concept of the web of life; Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution: Generations were spurred to genius by a desire to unlock the mysteries of the interconnected universe. Decades later, Albert Einstein would write: “He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder or stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: His eyes are closed.” For trailblazers and heretics, awe was a driving force, the handmaiden of revelation. 

As these notions of the virtue of explorations both physical and intellectual percolated through to the masses, this era yielded what we might recognize today as the modern pursuit of awe. The transition away from agricultural work and intermittent peace in Europe would eventually give rise to the weekend, to holidays, to leisure. “When previously wildernesses had been shunned,” Robert Macfarlane wrote in “Mountains of the Mind,” “now they were sought out as arenas of intense experience.”

Still, awe itself remained a scientific enigma. In his 1605 treatise “The Advancement of Learning,” the father of empiricism, Francis Bacon, described wonder as “broken knowledge” — a facet of the human condition, in other words, that defied his scientific method. For all the words expended on its cause and effect, awe was still the preserve of the metaphysical, its vagaries explained away as the handiwork of God, beyond human comprehension. Awe and science existed in tension, even as the one fed the other. It was a lacuna in our understanding of the human condition that future wonderers would seek to fill. 

Point Reyes National Seashore. (Lucas Foglia for Noema Magazine)

On a cloudless day in September, Dacher Keltner and I went for a walk. In the correspondence that preceded my trip to visit him in California, his emails appeared in spare, declarative lines. One of his staccato suggestions — “We can hike in the Berkeley Hills where I found a lot of awe during grief, etc … and still do …” — became our initial meeting.

In person, Keltner is warm and expansive, his lean face tanned from decades of hiking under the Californian sun. Now 61, his blonde hair has faded to grey, but he still wears it long, as he has since childhood. He admitted that friends have started teasing him that he is morphing into his idol, Iggy Pop. A stylized cartoon of the Stooges frontman, head cinched in a crown of thorns, sits on his desk in his office at Berkeley. 

We parked in a gravelly lot by the road and started up the trail. Redwoods, oaks and eucalyptuses, some with great torsional trunks, alternated at the trailside. Unseen wildlife rustled in the underbrush. Keltner was telling me how, a couple of years ago, after losing his grip on awe, he’d walked this up-down circuit day after day to try to recapture it. 

When Keltner was 10, his family moved from hippy, middle-class Laurel Canyon to Penryn, a hardscrabble, one-store town northeast of Sacramento. Life on the western fringe of the Sierra Nevada wasn’t exactly charmed. His parents were often hard-up, and their marriage was tempestuous; it would end in divorce when Keltner was 16. Despite the strain, it was a household rich in awe. Keltner’s father was a freewheeling artist. His mother, an English professor at Sacramento State, was prone to quoting lines of William Blake over dinner. 

It helped that there was a wonderland on the doorstep. On weekends, Keltner and his younger brother Rolf would go adventuring on the banks of the Yuba River, or light out into the Sierra foothills. “It was rope swings and exploration and getting into trouble,” he told me. “It was a good beginning.” 

“Proponents of the new science of awe believe that experiencing it may be an essential pathway to physical and mental well-being.”

Born 14 months apart, the brothers remained tight into adulthood. They were each other’s best men at their weddings and spoke most weekends. Every year, as a matter of ritual, they’d go for multiday hikes in their beloved Sierras. Keltner describes Rolf as his “companion in awe.” In January 2019, when Rolf died after a two-year battle with colon cancer, Keltner was at his bedside. 

Rolf’s death plunged Keltner into a deep communion with awe — first its presence, in the aura of love, memory and mortality as he watched his brother slip away. Later, in the numbness of bereavement, he felt its absence. 

External factors pressed down. Keltner’s malaise was a microcosm of a world that he would later characterize as “running hot.” American individualism had yielded no end of instant gratification. But it also had given rise to epidemics of loneliness and diseases of despair. Drawing a parallel between climate change, the rising temperature of partisan politics and the inflammatory response of the human immune system to psychological stress, Keltner would later aggregate these various pressures, dubbing them “the inflaming problems of the day.”

For months after Rolf’s passing, Keltner felt unmoored. “I was blown off the map,” he said. “I was really vibrating with grief.” That May, after months of insomnia, he travelled down to Baja, in Mexico, with “a bag full of sacred texts” — Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” Wordsworth’s “The Prelude,” Lao Tzu’s “Tao Te Ching” — and began to write. “I just spewed out 110 pages in 20 days,” he said. “That was the start of the book.” 

Point Reyes National Seashore. (Lucas Foglia for Noema Magazine)

Keltner’s new book may have come together in a fit of catharsis, but the intellectual journey it describes had been preoccupying Keltner for years. Studying for a Ph.D. at Stanford, his first paper was an inquiry into the mood-elevating qualities of Brian Eno’s ambient instrumentals. As a postgrad at UC San Francisco, he worked as a junior researcher for Paul Ekman, one of the pioneers of the so-called emotion revolution. Since the 1960s, Ekman’s studies of non-verbal behavior had sought to demonstrate that some of our most common emotions are universal. He found, for example, that the expressions for happiness, sadness and disgust among isolated tribes in Papua New Guinea were recognizable to citizens of globalized cultures, and vice versa.

Ekman argued that emotions were evolutionary tools, vital to human survival. In Darwinian terms, the passions had evolved not in spite of natural selection, but because of it. Disgust, for example, helps to ensure that we avoid eating rotten food. Surprise focuses attention on a potential threat. 

Keltner was captivated by Ekman’s ideas, which he saw as a repudiation of the cognitive theory that viewed the human brain in objectivist, computational terms: data goes in, the brain appraises, a decision based on rational self-interest results. “What was missing from this portrayal of the human mind was passion,” he said. “The idea that you could explain politics, morality or prejudice without understanding the emotions seemed absurd.” 

In 2003, by then a tenured professor at Berkeley and the founding director of its Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), Keltner turned his attention to a gap in Ekman’s taxonomy. Collaborating with Jonathan Haidt, then at the University of Virginia, he immersed himself in philosophical and religious literature from Burke to the Bhagavad Gita, and co-authored a paper titled “Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion.” 

“Over the course of Keltner’s research, one recurring motif is that awe precipitates ‘ego death’ — the dissolution of the self.”

The first issue was how to define awe. What is it? The thesis they alighted on rested on two key appraisals: “perceived vastness” and “a need for accommodation,” qualifying the latter as “a challenge to or negation of mental structures when they fail to make sense of an experience of something vast.” 

“Emotional experiences that lack one or both of these features are best called by some other name,” Keltner and Haidt wrote.

There were caveats and footnotes. Vastness could be conceptual as well as physical. The microscopic symmetries of a leaf’s cellular substructure could be as marvelous as the patterns of the cosmos. Awe had “flavoring themes”; apprehensions of threat, beauty or supernatural belief would influence awe’s hedonic tone.  

The paper speculated that awe could result in negative outcomes. Citing Max Weber’s work on charisma and leadership, Keltner and Haidt wondered whether awe might be an adaptive function of hierarchical societies, rendering people spellbound and subservient, and therefore susceptible to the manipulations of a charismatic leader or ideology. Keltner would later observe to me that the ritual surrounding the recent funeral of Queen Elizabeth II represented an archetypal instance of a state “instrumentalizing awe.”

In most scenarios, however, awe was covetable, often counterintuitively so. “When I watched my brother die, it was like: This guy is going. I know what I’m in for,” Keltner recalled. “And yet I feel good. I want to throw myself into this mystery.”

Point Reyes National Seashore. (Lucas Foglia for Noema Magazine)

Keltner’s book outlines how, in the years that followed, he and his students set out to further refine their understanding of the processes that trigger awe. Among their most wide-ranging surveys was the “26-culture study,” which hasn’t yet been published but Dacher writes extensively about in “Awe.” Respondents from 26 countries and a spectrum of religious, economic and cultural backgrounds were asked to submit their “awe stories,” recounting a moment that brought them their most memorable and potent encounter with awe. 

In came anecdotes of childbirth, falling in love, natural reverie and spiritual rapture. Out of this trove of 2,600 personal narratives, the team at Berkeley distilled a definitive catalogue of awe’s elicitors. Keltner dubbed them “the eight wonders of life.” The most common source of awe was the moral beauty of other people, such as witnessing instances of compassion or courage. Also prevalent was “collective effervescence,” the sense of transcendent unity we might feel at a sporting event or when dancing in unison with others. Then came two predictable ones: nature and music, to which was added a third aesthetic stimulus, visual design. The last three could be lumped together by those of a romantic disposition as matters of the soul: spiritual awe, life and death, and epiphanies, like Archimedes’ Eureka moment, or the Damascene conversion of St. Paul. 

One thing was already becoming clear: Awe is universal, as familiar to a devout Hindu in India as an atheist in Switzerland. The narratives also pointed to a phenomenology, one in which cultures archived awe, primarily in religion, but also in other “elaborated forms”: song, architecture, sport, ritual.  

Subsequent studies would hint at a deeper heritage, one that predated language. Experiments conducted by Keltner and others into whether people of disparate cultures recognize each other’s common “vocal bursts” — think of the “ow” of pain or the “mmm” of pleasure — suggested that “woah” or “wow” or “aaaah,” the vocal bursts associated with awe, is the most universal in the world. 

Indeed, awe may not necessarily be the preserve of Homo sapiens. As Keltner notes in “Awe,” the primatologist Jane Goodall observed members of a chimpanzee society in Tanzania approaching a rushing cataract in a forest clearing. Goodall found that the apes fell into a swaying dance, threw rocks and swung across the waterfall’s spray on lianas. Afterward, some would sit on a boulder to watch the rushing water, seemingly in a state of deep contemplation. 

“I think chimpanzees are as spiritual as we are,” Goodall said. “You get the feeling that it’s all locked up inside them, and the only way they can express it is through this fantastic, rhythmic dance.”

Point Reyes National Seashore. (Lucas Foglia for Noema Magazine)

Over the course of Keltner’s research, one recurring motif — and the facet of awe that best unlocks the question of what the emotion is for, and why it might be good for us — is that it precipitates “ego death,” the dissolution of the self.

In one experiment, a Berkeley postdoctoral researcher, Yang Bai, spent several days with research assistants in Yosemite Valley, persuading more than 1,100 visitors to draw themselves while standing at a viewpoint overlooking the valley. Another group were asked to do the same from the more urban vantage of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. In the resulting pencil sketches, the urban set filled the page with their self-image. The Yosemite subjects, by contrast, tended to draw themselves small, often dwarfed by the valley’s splendor. Being in a monumental natural environment apparently shaped the participants’ self-image. The individual diminished. The surroundings came to the fore. 

The data from this and other similar experiments lent some empirical scaffolding to an assumption that shamans, spiritualists and romantics have toyed with through the ages. In the 1836 essay “Nature,” one of the seminal texts of Transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes: “The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them.”

“If awe feels good, and it usually does, it’s because it is an essential mechanism for collective survival.”

This phenomenon is best understood not as a fracturing of some brittle self-conception but as a form of sublimation. In awe, the self-image becomes diffuse, intermingling not just with other people, but common humanity, the biosphere and everything. Keltner uses the word “merging.”

In his earlier book, “Born To Be Good,” Keltner lamented the ascent of Homo economicus, the supposedly rational model of human behavior that evolved alongside laissez-faire economic doctrines and was later augmented by Richard Dawkins’ influential “Selfish Gene” theory. Keltner was dismayed by the way obsessive self-focus, supercharged by digital technologies, impacted his daughters’ teenage years. It’s a narcissistic, high-stress mindset he continues to encounter among his students in the pressure-cooker atmosphere at Berkeley.

Keltner became convinced that awe could be a counteragent to these immiserating modern neuroses. Notably, not a single respondent in Berkeley’s 26-culture study cited consumer purchases as the source of their awe-story. In “Awe,” Keltner writes: “Awe occurs in a realm separate from the mundane world of materialism, money, acquisition and status signaling — a realm beyond the profane that many call the sacred.”

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Dacher Keltner on the Berkeley campus. (Lucas Foglia for Noema Magazine)

At the western edge of the Berkeley campus, on the north bank of Strawberry Creek, there is a remarkable stand of trees. Eucalyptus globulus, common name Tasmanian blue gum, is a fast-growing invasive species brought to California by Australian prospectors during the Gold Rush. 

Originally planted as a windbreak for the university’s old cinder running track, the grove has since shot up to a majestic size. Some 200 feet high, it’s said to be the tallest stand of hardwood trees in North America. 

Keltner and I met there on the morning after our walk in the Berkeley Hills. Shafts of sun broke through the high canopy. Dauntless squirrels harvested the ground. “It’s the light, the height, the collectivism,” Keltner said, placing a reverential palm on the base of one of the trees, where the old fibrous bark peeled back to reveal a smooth grey underlay. “I love the touch. They feel animal-like. Elephantine. And there’s something about looking up.”

Years ago, Berkeley’s eucalyptus grove was the setting for one of Keltner’s most illuminating experiments. A group of students took turns standing on the edge of the copse and staring into the trunks and branches for one minute. Another group stood in a similar spot but faced the opposite direction, towards the southern façade of Weill Hall, an austere natural sciences building.

“Much of what Keltner is trying to substantiate consists of things that we know intuitively to be true.”

Immediately afterward, participants completed a questionnaire. The results demonstrated a clear divergence between the two groups. Team Eucalyptus scored lower on the psychological entitlement scale, which measures egocentricity. Upon being asked to imagine how much they should be paid for their participation in the study, they asked for significantly less money. Finally, in response to a staged accident in which the experimenter dropped some pens, the eucalyptus group were observed to react more helpfully. A short burst of awe seemed to leave participants feeling more altruistic, more collaborative and less entitled.

Keltner says that these “saintly tendencies” are a gateway to understanding awe’s evolutionary purpose. Further clues are found in physiology — in the bodily responses people experience when awe takes hold. 

Think back to the last memory you have of feeling awestruck, and chances are that the sensation was “embodied.” Like Ekman’s original universal emotions, awe is often expressed by facial and physical modulations that defy cultural boundaries. During one conversation, I told Keltner about my then four-year-old daughter’s bawling reaction to the emotional climax of “Inside Out,” the Pixar movie for which he was the scientific advisor. The memory sent a shiver up my arms and Keltner spotted it (“Ah! Awe’s bodily response!”), which seemed to give him no end of glee. 

Keltner believes that the tears and chills that often follow awe are, at root, signaling strategies designed to transmit unspoken messages to other members of a social group. Tears, or welling up, signal that a person is upset, provoking compassion in others. Horripilation, better known as goosebumps, induces cognitive associations of coldness and a mammalian urge to huddle — to comingle into a cohesive whole. This strength-in-numbers impulse, Keltner hypothesizes, binds social groups in common purpose. If awe feels good, and it usually does, it’s because it is an essential mechanism for collective survival.

Point Reyes National Seashore. (Lucas Foglia for Noema Magazine)

One afternoon, in the shade of a dense-canopied redwood in Keltner’s bosky hillside garden in north Berkeley, I asked him about the elephant in the wunderkammer. Arguably the greatest impediment Keltner faces in convincing a wider public about the far-reaching benefits of awe is a vein of modern cynicism, a sense that awe has been co-opted by a vapid culture of self-improvement and new-age psychobabble. 

Often, it can be difficult to employ the language of positive psychology without sounding gauzy or grandiose. The GGSC was originally called the Center for the Development of Peace and Well-Being, but Keltner later changed it, concerned that its work wouldn’t be taken seriously.

Keltner’s the first to admit that his cause probably isn’t helped by his stereotypical mien: the hair, the laconic manner, the mythos that has grown up around his inadvertent embodiment of “Berkeley guy.” “You know, people think I surf. I don’t surf,” he said. “There’s a legend that I was in a rock-and-roll band. I’m a horrible musician.”

Awe, perhaps more than any other positive emotion, can sound corny or vague or over-earnest. It probably doesn’t help that its adjectival form, “awesome,” has been deadened by overuse. Fans of HBO’s “Succession” might recall a moment in season two when Kendall Roy stares blank-faced at a new girlfriend after she shares an awkward interaction with his father. “You said awesome a lot,” Kendall observes, in a contemptuous monotone. Minutes later, he is asking an attendant to fetch her coat.

Wonder, of course, is synonymous with innocence. It can seem antithetical to the imperatives of sober, rational adulthood. Over the last year, my seven-year-old son’s extemporaneous questions have included: “Why do people die?” and “If the Big Bang made the universe, what made the Big Bang?” Yet it shames me to admit that I have seldom properly indulged these magical inquiries. Such generational indifference, familiar to time-pressed parents of inquisitive seven-year-olds the world over, is symptomatic of a cultural tendency to conflate awe with naivety — and in so doing, to dismiss its value. 

Another strain of resistance comes from the gatekeepers of religion. More than once, Keltner has received blowback from Christian critics, who’ve said that, by attempting to demystify awe, he is diminishing God. 

“There’s this assumption that scientists don’t get to write about the sublime,” Keltner said. “I get it. Some people don’t want the tools of science to touch the numinous and the sacred. If I say I’m studying sexual desire or fight-or-flight physiology, they’re like, yeah, of course. If I say that I’m studying awe with the same tools, people assume it’s going to miss the whole phenomena.”

“An individual’s susceptibility to grave or life-threatening COVID outcomes might owe something not just to their constitutional make-up, but also their emotional disposition.”

But what if awe manifested in ways that were less ambiguous, less subjective and more readily quantifiable? What if awe makes you better? 

Over the last three years, as epidemiologists around the world scrambled to map the morbidity and lethality of COVID-19, much of their attention alighted on cytokines: small inflammatory proteins that coordinate the immune system. In a healthy body, cytokine molecules are the vanguard of a body’s defenses against pathogenic attack, like a sailor in a ship’s crow’s nest yelling “iceberg ahead!”

If cytokine levels become chronically elevated, however, they can cause acute illness. In severe cases, COVID can catalyze a “cytokine storm,” in which an overactive immune system begins to attack the body, triggering a catastrophic chain reaction that can lead to multiple organ failures and death. 

For psychologists like Keltner, who trade in emotion, this suggested a far-reaching implication: that an individual’s susceptibility to grave or life-threatening COVID outcomes might owe something not just to their constitutional make-up, but also their emotional disposition.

Recent decades have seen a raft of research pointing to a strong correlation between chronic cytokine elevation and negative emotions like fear and shame, and to their more enduring corollaries: anxiety, alienation, depression. But studies led by Jennifer Stellar of the University of Toronto sought to establish whether the relationship held in the other direction. What effect do positive emotions have on the cytokine system? Stellar’s team concluded that several positive emotions, including joy and love, did indeed appear to predict lower levels of the cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6), a reliable index of inflammation levels. But the biggest predictor by far — as much as three times more than joy — was awe. 

“These findings have changed how I think about awe in my own life,” said Stellar, in a subsequent TED talk. “I used to see a walk in nature or a trip to the museum as a luxury I could rarely afford in my busy life. Now I see these experiences as essential to my mental and physical health.”

Other studies have suggested that awe — alongside another self-transcendent emotion, compassion — is the emotion most likely to activate the vagus nerve. The longest of our 12 cranial nerves, the vagus is believed to regulate the so-called gut-brain axis, the interface between the nervous system and the digestive tract. Though this science is still young, the prevailing hypothesis is that an active vagus nerve, or “healthy vagal tone,” helps to relieve depression and anxiety as well as inflammatory autoimmune conditions such as arthritis and Crohn’s disease.

“An awe-rich person can expect to be happier, healthier and kinder: the holy trinity of good vibes.”

While much of the data accrued in support of Keltner’s theories rested on self-reported evidence, the cold biology of these findings tends to cut through. “One of the audiences I speak to the most is medical doctors,” Keltner told me. “They traffic in the language of the body. And if you go to them and say awe lowers inflammation —” he clicked his fingers “— they start prescribing getting into nature.”

Leif Hass, a clinician at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland, is one of several doctors in Keltner’s orbit who have started supplementing electronic prescriptions for meds with old-school paper prescriptions recommending feel-good activities like “Sing in the shower” and “Go for a walk in a beautiful place.” He recalls one patient from last year — mid-60s, chronic heart condition — who thanked him for saving his life: “I thought, did I give him a diuretic, some blood-pressure meds?” Hass said. “And he goes: ‘That prescription you gave me to watch the sunset. I would have never made it through this year without it.’” The patient recently told Hass that he still keeps the note on the fridge at home.

Keltner himself has witnessed no shortage of awe’s curative effects first-hand. Back in 2015, the GGSC partnered with the Sierra Club to arrange some whitewater rafting trips on the American River. A narrow tributary of the Sacramento, the American uncoils from the high snowpacks of the Sierra Nevada in a series of rapids with menacing names like “Meat Grinder” and “Satan’s Cesspool.” The participants on the expeditions included victims of tough circumstances: teenagers from deprived backgrounds from high schools in Richmond and Oakland, military veterans who were in treatment for a variety of combat-related psychological conditions. 

Prior to launch and again a week later, Berkeley psychologists asked them a range of questions to assess their state of mind. They also took before-and-after samples of saliva, from which they were able to measure levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. At the end of a day’s rafting, the cortisol level of each participant had converged with their crewmates — “merging” happening in real-time. 

In the days that followed, every participant reported an upsurge in well-being and social connection. The veterans, many of whom were terrorized by flashbacks of the horrors they’d witnessed in conflict, reported a 32% drop in symptoms associated with PTSD. Subsequent analysis revealed that the subjects associated these benefits not with joy or exhilaration, but with awe. 

“Looking up at the star-spattered sky, I thought about the universe and how infinite it is,” one veteran wrote. “It makes what I do feel less important, but the opportunity of what I could do more powerful and lightweight.”

If “inflaming problems” like anxiety and alienation can provoke an inflammatory response, awe presented itself as a potential antidote, becalming people’s neurochemistry and elevating their mood. A day spent in nature was the therapeutic equivalent of dunking an overheating body into a refreshing mountain torrent. An awe-rich person could expect to be happier, healthier and kinder: the holy trinity of good vibes.

Point Reyes National Seashore. (Lucas Foglia for Noema Magazine)

Several months ago, when I first heard about Keltner’s science-based faith in the relationship between awe and happiness, I was intrigued. This wasn’t purely a case of academic curiosity. I felt personally invested in his findings. In many ways, finding awe has been my lifelong quest. 

I have traveled, sometimes obsessively, in pursuit of awe moments. Over time, I convinced myself that exposure to novel experience might somehow assuage my fear of premature death, which has haunted me in one form or another since my father died when I was four. Over the years, I developed a conviction that the immateriality invoked by awe helped silence the ticking clock in my mind. In the GGSC’s awe quiz, which you can take online, I scored 72/75, indicating “a high level of awe.”

For the most part, however, awe was something I incubated by chasing what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences.” Like Keltner, I have always been interested in the difficult art of happiness precisely because happiness has so often felt slippery. I was skeptical about how much awe could be corralled at will, and even more that it could be reliably cultivated in mundane contexts.

An hour after we met up in the eucalyptus stand, I watched Keltner give a talk on awe as part of Berkeley’s homecoming weekend celebrations. At the outset, as he summarized the lecture’s content, he joked: “I’ll do a little digression into psychedelics, and that will dominate the Q&A. Such is life.”

“The more you feel awe, the more it becomes omnipresent. That runs counter to an assumption about human pleasure — that the more we eat ice cream, the less we like it. Awe is different. But you have to put the work in.”
— Dacher Keltner

Sure enough, when Keltner opened things up to the floor, every question revolved around the relationship between awe and therapeutic interventions: psychedelics like psilocybin and ayahuasca, or procedures like transcranial magnetic stimulation.

Later, as we set off in his car across San Francisco Bay to go walking in Point Reyes, Keltner seemed uneasy. The surge in psychedelic use in America marked a revolution, he said. Much of the emergent science, which has been promulgated by his friend and former Berkeley colleague Michael Pollan, seemed encouraging.

But to emphasize the role of organic precipitants in inducing awe was to overlook Keltner’s most radical proposition. Awe wasn’t some intangible state dependent on high-wattage prompts like the Grand Canyon or magic mushrooms. It just seemed that way, because the big stuff is so amplified, and the regular moments so fugitive, that they dominate the memory. 

In reality, opportunities to feel awe are all around us — in our surroundings, our relationships, our daily lives. In Keltner’s surveys, subjects reported feeling awe an average of around twice a week. Moreover, awe is regenerative. “That was one of our most surprising discoveries — that the more you feel awe, the more it becomes omnipresent,” he said. “That runs counter to an assumption about human pleasure — that the more we eat ice cream, the less we like it. Awe is different. But you have to put the work in.”

Point Reyes National Seashore. (Lucas Foglia for Noema Magazine)

A week later, back home in South London and keen to test the availability of “everyday awe,” I packed a bag with a day’s provisions and went to the woods alone.

Half a mile from where I live is a tract of woodland. It is a last fragment of the Great North Wood, an ancient oak forest, most of which has long since been subsumed by the expanding suburbs. I’ve been there countless times. And though it is popular with families and dog walkers, it has always felt like an oasis of unfettered nature amid the city’s bricks and concrete.

Driving back from the supermarket a few days earlier, I had seen a gate that I’d never noticed before. A small laminated sign beside it read: “Welcome to Dulwich Upper Wood.” It led into another tract of woodland, divided from the area with which I was familiar by a busy road. 

The Upper Wood? This struck me as extraordinary — that there could be another wild place so close to home that I had never set foot in. It seemed symbolic of the problem that so much of hedonic psychology — and Keltner’s work — sought to counteract: the idea that many of the best and most spiritually nourishing things in life are all too often rendered invisible by the tyrannies of time, money and force of habit.

I walked through the gate an hour before dawn. Two minutes later, I emerged to the other side. The Upper Wood turned out to be more of a spinney than a gloaming forest. It was bordered on the up-slope by a housing estate and an embankment of Victorian brick arches. For an hour or so, I walked in the tight circle of its main trail, investigating various off-ramps, until eventually, I found my way onto a path that dog-legged uphill along a concrete stairway of indeterminate age. It leveled off at a small clearing where someone had placed a bench and erected a simple balustrade. From here, the trunks and leaning boughs formed a natural aperture looking back out over the woods, with a great bifurcating oak at its center. 

I sat on the bench and tried to be present. I did my best to block out the sounds of early morning traffic and leaned in, instead, to the trills and chirrups of the dawn chorus. I tried to remember my Emerson: “In the woods, all mean egotism vanishes …”

Awe came to me that morning in many forms. Its dominant protagonist was the big oak, whose branches subdivided in a fractal pattern like the capillary system of the lungs. Looking up, I could see the upper branches waving idly in the breeze against a metal sky. Leaves spiraled groundward from its crown. 

“Many of the best and most spiritually nourishing things in life are all too often rendered invisible by the tyrannies of time, money and force of habit.”

With the onset of daylight, the birds grew raucous, then quieter. Every five minutes or so, their emissary, a red-breasted robin, landed on the balustrade to ponder my intrusion. As the day progressed, I started to see people walking along the main trail. But I realized with some delight that no one was coming up the side-path. Everyone was hastening somewhere else. 

Some of the awe I felt that day was serendipitous: the oak, the robin, the modest overview effect granted by my elevated position. But I also found that I could will it into being simply by thinking about it. There was reverence in considering this ancient wood that had outlived the great felling, and the people — hundreds over time, I guessed — who had fought for its survival in defiance of urban sprawl.

Now and again, I felt that delightful shiver. It wasn’t full-blown reverie, a dance with the divine. This was gentle and self-conjured. It was awe all the same, though. The prescription was nothing more complicated than a simple eyrie, half a mile from home, and some time to sit still.

What surprised me, I realized, was that I’d known I would find it, here in the woods. After weeks of thinking about awe, I was more attuned to its wavelength than ever. The reality was that much of what Keltner was trying to substantiate consisted of things that we know intuitively to be true. The ideas that the new science of awe illuminate — that money doesn’t bring happiness; solvitur ambulando — are timeless, axiomatic. Their antecedents recur throughout history, from the musings of antique theologians to the exhortations of flower-power bumper stickers and beyond.

That their origins were yet to be fully brought into focus suggested that they probably never would be, for all Keltner’s efforts. In the conclusion to “Awe,” he writes: “Our experiences of awe hint at faint answers to these perennial questions.” Hints and faint answers. The tension between awe and science could never be fully reconciled because, in the end, ambiguity was awe’s operating principle.

The robin lifted off on another enigmatic circuit. A spaniel ran joyfully across the forest floor, its owner in tow. The uppermost branches of the great oak waved on an unfelt breeze. And the Earth turned around the sun.  

Point Reyes National Seashore. (Lucas Foglia for Noema Magazine)