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Why Do We Experience Awe?

Why Do We Experience Awe?

MAY 22, 2015

By PAUL PIFF and DACHER KELTNER

HERE’S a curious fact about goose bumps. In many nonhuman mammals, goose bumps — that physiological reaction in which the muscles surrounding hair follicles contract — occur when individuals, along with other members of their species, face a threat. We humans, by contrast, can get goose bumps when we experience awe, that often-positive feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.

Why do humans experience awe? Years ago, one of us, Professor Keltner, argued (along with the psychologist Jonathan Haidt) that awe is the ultimate “collective” emotion, for it motivates people to do things that enhance the greater good. Through many activities that give us goose bumps — collective rituals, celebration, music and dance, religious gatherings and worship — awe might help shift our focus from our narrow self-interest to the interests of the group to which we belong.

Now, recent research of ours, to be published in next month’s issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, provides strong empirical support for this claim. We found that awe helps bind us to others, motivating us to act in collaborative ways that enable strong groups and cohesive communities.

For example, in one study we asked more than 1,500 individuals across the United States a series of questions to assess how much awe, among other emotions, they experienced on a regular basis. In an ostensibly unrelated part of the study, we gave each person 10 lottery tickets that would be entered in his (or her) name for a cash prize drawing. We told each person that the tickets were his to keep, but that if he wanted to, he could share a portion of them with another unidentified individual in the study who had not received any tickets.

We found that participants who reported experiencing more awe in their lives, who felt more regular wonder and beauty in the world around them, were more generous to the stranger. They gave approximately 40 percent more of their tickets away than did participants who were awe-deprived.

Some of this research was conducted on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, which has a spectacular grove of Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees, some with heights exceeding 200 feet — a potent source of everyday awe for anyone who walks by. So we took participants there and had them either look up into the trees or look at the facade of a nearby science building, for one minute. Then, a minor “accident” occurred (actually a planned part of the experiment): A person stumbled and dropped a handful of pens. Participants who had spent the minute looking up at the tall trees — not long, but long enough, we found, to be filled with awe — picked up more pens to help the other person.

In other experiments, we evoked feelings of awe in the lab, for example by having participants recall and write about a past experience of awe or watch a five-minute video of sublime scenes of nature. Participants experiencing awe, more so than those participants experiencing emotions like pride or amusement, cooperated more, shared more resources and sacrificed more for others — all of which are behaviours necessary for our collective life.

In still other studies, we have sought to understand why awe arouses altruism of different kinds. One answer is that awe imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, more humble and part of something larger. Our research finds that even brief experiences of awe, such as being amid beautiful tall trees, lead people to feel less narcissistic and entitled and more attuned to the common humanity people share with one another. In the great balancing act of our social lives, between the gratification of self-interest and a concern for others, fleeting experiences of awe redefine the self in terms of the collective, and orient our actions toward the needs of those around us.

You could make the case that our culture today is awe-deprived. Adults spend more and more time working and commuting and less time outdoors and with other people. Camping trips, picnics and midnight skies are forgone in favour of working weekends and late at night. Attendance at arts events — live music, theatre, museums and galleries — has dropped over the years. This goes for children, too: Arts and music programs in schools are being dismantled in lieu of programs better suited to standardized testing; time outdoors and for novel, unbounded exploration are sacrificed for résumé-building activities.

We believe that awe deprivation has had a hand in a broad societal shift that has been widely observed over the past 50 years: People have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others. To reverse this trend, we suggest that people insist on experiencing more everyday awe, to actively seek out what gives them goose bumps, be it in looking at trees, night skies, patterns of wind on water or the quotidian nobility of others — the teenage punk who gives up his seat on public transportation, the young child who explores the world in a state of wonder, the person who presses on against all odds.

All of us will be better off for it.

Paul Piff is an assistant professor of psychology and social behaviour at the University of California, Irvine. Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on May 24, 2015, on page SR10 of the New York edition with the headline: Why Do We Experience Awe? .

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/24/opinion/sunday/why-do-we-experience-awe.html?referrer&_r=3 Accessed 4 June 2015

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The Urgent Call to Stillness

The Urgent Call to Stillness

Posted: 09/26/2012 12:50 pm

Ed Bacon

Each year I go on a silent retreat. This year has been my 24thweek spent in silence and contemplation. What a gift! During this time, when I’m able to think deeply and without interruption, I often identify the core issues that energize and inform my sermons over the course of the year.

On an abstract level, we all know it’s difficult to make good decisions when we’re wrapped up in the frenzy of "normal life." There’s simply no time to hear ourselves think. But in stillness, we hear ourselves clearly, and we hear others too. Stillness rings like a bell struck during meditation; it is pure and precious.

I incorporate stillness into my life every single day and it feeds my soul.

It’s a Serious Challenge

We’re constantly being told to "slow down" and "take it easy." But it’s hard to do.

One morning a while back, I hadn’t found time for stillness. After a hurried breakfast, I got to my office and turned on my computer. In my inbox was an email marked urgent from one of my parishioners.

He wrote that he’d heard that the boss of a right-wing radio talk show host was on our Board of Governors. "How could a church with our peace and justice agenda elevate to such a level someone whose behavior is so destructive to the health of the country?" he asked me.

I felt attacked by his words. I took his questions and implied criticism personally, and so I reacted with an attitude of defensiveness rather than generosity. I wrote an email back that I soon came to regret.

But It’s Infinitely Rewarding

A few days later, I met him after I had started the day with stillness. I felt grounded in knowing and feeling myself and everyone else as beloved. With that perspective, I understood that his intent had never been to challenge me personally or professionally. He had simply meant to raise the question as an item for discussion.

Without the calm and positive energy that comes from accessing stillness, I had read him with the wrong mind-set, in the spirit of fear and with a closed heart. My instinct had been toward defensiveness and dogma.

When we’re tired or frenzied and we do not stop for stillness–some form of prayer, meditation, reflection, rest, healthy diversion–we do harm to ourselves. Fear feeds on frenzy and fatigue.

In contrast, the Habit of Stillness, when practiced over time, transforms us as it connects us to our inner sanctuary every day, preventing us from reacting defensively in life and in relationships. With stillness, we are open to life and are lovingly present.

This Blogger’s Books from Amazon. 8 Habits of Love: Open Your Heart, Open Your Mind
by Ed Bacon
Twitter: www.twitter.com/RevEdBacon

The Urgent Call to Stillness

The Urgent Call to Stillness

Posted: 09/26/2012 12:50 pm

Ed Bacon

Each year I go on a silent retreat. This year has been my 24thweek spent in silence and contemplation. What a gift! During this time, when I’m able to think deeply and without interruption, I often identify the core issues that energize and inform my sermons over the course of the year.

On an abstract level, we all know it’s difficult to make good decisions when we’re wrapped up in the frenzy of "normal life." There’s simply no time to hear ourselves think. But in stillness, we hear ourselves clearly, and we hear others too. Stillness rings like a bell struck during meditation; it is pure and precious.

I incorporate stillness into my life every single day and it feeds my soul.

It’s a Serious Challenge

We’re constantly being told to "slow down" and "take it easy." But it’s hard to do.

One morning a while back, I hadn’t found time for stillness. After a hurried breakfast, I got to my office and turned on my computer. In my inbox was an email marked urgent from one of my parishioners.

He wrote that he’d heard that the boss of a right-wing radio talk show host was on our Board of Governors. "How could a church with our peace and justice agenda elevate to such a level someone whose behavior is so destructive to the health of the country?" he asked me.

I felt attacked by his words. I took his questions and implied criticism personally, and so I reacted with an attitude of defensiveness rather than generosity. I wrote an email back that I soon came to regret.

But It’s Infinitely Rewarding

A few days later, I met him after I had started the day with stillness. I felt grounded in knowing and feeling myself and everyone else as beloved. With that perspective, I understood that his intent had never been to challenge me personally or professionally. He had simply meant to raise the question as an item for discussion.

Without the calm and positive energy that comes from accessing stillness, I had read him with the wrong mind-set, in the spirit of fear and with a closed heart. My instinct had been toward defensiveness and dogma.

When we’re tired or frenzied and we do not stop for stillness–some form of prayer, meditation, reflection, rest, healthy diversion–we do harm to ourselves. Fear feeds on frenzy and fatigue.

In contrast, the Habit of Stillness, when practiced over time, transforms us as it connects us to our inner sanctuary every day, preventing us from reacting defensively in life and in relationships. With stillness, we are open to life and are lovingly present.

This Blogger’s Books from Amazon. 8 Habits of Love: Open Your Heart, Open Your Mind
by Ed Bacon
Twitter: www.twitter.com/RevEdBacon

The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries

The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries

They didn’t set out to change history. But one modern scholar’s research shows they did just that.

Andrea Palpant Dilley [ posted 1/8/2014 12:07PM ]

For many of our contemporaries, no one sums up missionaries of an earlier era like Nathan Price. The patriarch in Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 novel, The Poisonwood Bible, Price tries to baptize new Congolese Christians in a river filled with crocodiles. He proclaims Tata Jesus is bangala!, thinking he is saying, "Jesus is beloved." In fact, the phrase means, "Jesus is poisonwood." Despite being corrected many times, Price repeats the phrase until his death—Kingsolver’s none-too-subtle metaphor for the culturally insensitive folly of modern missions.

For some reason, no one has written a best-selling book about the real-life 19th-century missionary John Mackenzie. When white settlers in South Africa threatened to take over the natives’ land, Mackenzie helped his friend and political ally Khama III travel to Britain. There, Mackenzie and his colleagues held petition drives, translated for Khama and two other chiefs at political rallies, and even arranged a meeting with Queen Victoria. Ultimately their efforts convinced Britain to enact a land protection agreement. Without it, the nation of Botswana would likely not exist today.

The annals of Western Protestant missions include Nathan Prices, of course. But thanks to a quiet, persistent sociologist named Robert Woodberry, we now know for certain that they include many more John Mackenzies. In fact, the work of missionaries like Mackenzie turns out to be the single largest factor in ensuring the health of nations.

Fourteen years ago, Woodberry was a graduate student in sociology at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill (UNC). The son of J. Dudley Woodberry, a professor of Islamic studies and now a dean emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary, started studying in UNC’s respected PhD program with one of its most influential figures, Christian Smith (now at the University of Notre Dame). But as Woodberry cast about for a fruitful line of research of his own, he grew discontented.

"Most of the research I studied was about American religion," he says of early graduate school. "It wasn’t [my] passion, and it didn’t feel like a calling, something I could pour my life into."

One afternoon he attended a required lecture that brought his vocational drift to a sudden end. The lecture was by Kenneth A. Bollen, a UNC–Chapel Hill professor and one of the leading experts on measuring and tracking the spread of global democracy. Bollen remarked that he kept finding a significant statistical link between democracy and Protestantism. Someone needed to study the reason for the link, he said.

Woodberry sat forward in his seat and thought, ‘That’s me. I’m the one’.

Soon he found himself descending into the UNC–Chapel Hill archives in search of old data on religion. "I found an atlas [from 1925] of every missionary station in the world, with tons of data," says Woodberry with glee. He found data on the "number of schools, teachers, printing presses, hospitals, and doctors, and it referred in turn to earlier atlases. I thought, Wow, this is so huge. This is amazing. This is why God made me."

Woodberry set out to track down the evidence for Bollen’s conjecture that Protestant religion and democracy were somehow related. He studied yellowed maps, spending months charting the longitude and latitude of former missionary stations. He traveled to Thailand and India to consult with local scholars, dug through archives in London, Edinburgh, and Serampore, India, and talked with church historians all over Europe, North America, Asia, and Africa.

For the rest of the article and its dangerous discoveries, go to

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/january-february/world-missionaries-made.html