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Peace and Transcendence: Awe-Inspiring Experiences

    Have you ever reached the top of a hill; emerged from a tree-lined bend in the path; parked the car by the side of the road and rolled down the window, and seen a view that just took your breath away?  Awe is not easy to define; from seeing a baby walk to witnessing a solar eclipse; awe is inspired by events that are both stunning and staggering, vast in size or in scope.[i] This piece is the second in a series of three articles on peace and transcendence and focuses on the effects of awe on personal and social peace. 

    Research suggests that feelings of awe can have deep psychological effects. Awe as a form of self-transcendence (the topic of the first piece in this series) means that it allows one to escape their own limitations and sense of self-importance. In fact, feelings of awe can lead to higher economic generosity, ethical decision-making and prosocial values.[ii] When we think of peace on a larger scale, the value of these attributes is clear; feelings of awe can contribute to peace on a personal scale, and a social one. 

    What is it about awe that leads to these outcomes? Awe inspires feelings of small self, an idea that we as people pale in comparison to the wonders around us, whether they be natural or social. When you look up at the night sky and ponder the scale of the universe compared to your own lifespan; or when you stare out across a busy metropolis with people moving in every direction through streets that disappear to the horizon; that’s a feeling of small self. Awe makes one’s own problems and concerns shrink in size compared to the vastness of what they’re witnessing.[iii] Feeling small means paying more attention to those around you;[iv]even to the point of undergoing physiological reactions to awe-inspiring moments that indicate prosocial behaviour .

    As well as feeling more social towards those around you, self-transcendence through awe-inspiring situations can make you more at peace with yourself. One study by Johns Hopkins university inspired awe in people with life-threatening illnesses, including through the use of psychotic drugs, and found that people were more at peace with cancer diagnoses, depression and anxiety after their experience. 80% of those studied continued to show decreased levels of depression and anxiety six months after the study concluded.[v]

    However, not all experiences of awe are positive. Taking in a natural vista may promote feelings of small self in a positive light, but there are equally examples of awe such as witnessing acts of barbarity, or forest fires, famine, etc. The smallness one feels after these experiences can also be impactful, but not necessarily in a positive way. A shocking act of injustice may make you want to take action immediately, to band together with other like-minded people and protest; but in doing so you may become aware of your own limitations and the different positions of those around you. As many people experience more and more awe-inspiring/shock-and-awe experiences caused by climate change, meanwhile, recurrent feelings of eco-anxiety and helplessness can begin to formulate. Some awe-inspiring experiences – or encounters with ‘the sublime’ – can be deeply unsettling, profoundly challenging both inner peace and inter-personal peace.

    While mindful of this potentially negative side, there is still space for us to consider what awe (and the self-transcendence it often brings) can contribute to how people experience and work for peace, both in their own lives and in global politics. Awe-inspiring experiences can help people to feel more at peace with themselves and those around them. It can help us to recognise our own limitations and see the value in connection with our natural and social worlds. This has obvious implications for peace-building, but the link between awe-inspiring experiences and peace on a grand scale is still under-researched. Should world leaders hike to the top of a mountain together before a peace summit? Or should they watch a video of a forest fire? Inspiring awe can be a tool for peace, but we have more work to do to realise its full potential.

    What do you think?

    • When have you experienced awe in your own life? How did it make you feel at the time? Did it bring you a sense of peace? Did it unsettle you? Or both?
    • Can you remember what impact awe-inspiring experiences have had on you afterwards – e.g. when you have walked down from a mountain summit, left the art gallery, read about some astonishing human endeavour, etc? How long did the impact last? Did it affect how you felt about yourself, your past/present/future, your place in the world? Did it affect how you interacted with or felt about others?
    • Have you experienced something like ‘awe’ in response to upsetting or frightening phenomena, such as witnessing a volcanic eruption or the destruction caused by armed conflict? How did that affect you, in the short/medium/long term?
    • Do you think that inspiring awe in people can help make them develop more inner peace, or interact more peacefully with others and the wider world? Do you think that awe could be used as a psychological tool tin some peace-building contexts? Might there be less conflict in the world if we experienced and shared more awe?
    • What research might we do to better understand the potential of awe and self-transcendence in peace-building?

    If you enjoyed this item in our museum…

    You might also enjoy The Inner Peace of Mary Oliver’s PoetryPlace is the Path to PeacePockets of Peace in St AndrewsMindful Peace with Haemin SunimOm ShantiPeace through Movement, and other items with the tag ‘inner peace‘.

    Joe Walker, April 2023

    [i] Awe is often inspired by encounters with ‘the sublime’, and can include an element of horror as well as amazement, as discussed by 18th-century philosopher Edmund Burke: ‘The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully is Astonishment, and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror …’ (

    [ii] Piff, P. K., P. Dietze, M. Feinberg, D. M. Stancato, and D. Keltner. 2015. “Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior.”  J Pers Soc Psychol 108 (6):883-99. doi: 10.1037/pspi0000018.

    [iii] Andriani, Luca, and Fabio Sabatini. 2015. “Trust and prosocial behaviour in a process of state capacity building: the case of the Palestinian territories.”  Journal of Institutional Economics 11 (4):823-846. doi: 10.1017/S1744137414000575.

    [iv] Stamkou, E., E. Brummelman, R. Dunham, M. Nikolic, and D. Keltner. 2023. “Awe Sparks Prosociality in Children.”  Psychol Sci:9567976221150616. doi: 10.1177/09567976221150616.

    [v] Griffiths, R. R., M. W. Johnson, M. A. Carducci, A. Umbricht, W. A. Richards, B. D. Richards, M. P. Cosimano, and M. A. Klinedinst. 2016. “Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial.”  J Psychopharmacol 30 (12):1181-1197. doi: 10.1177/0269881116675513.

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