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9 September 2015

How often do you feel in awe? Your answer could reveal your role in society

The fundamental human emotion of being awe-struck could be the answer to many of society's problems.

By Emad Ahmed

Do you know how awesome it is to be… in awe? Not just for your general state of happiness, but also for your physical health and the benefit of society?

After years of research into the physiological effects of negative emotions – far more science papers deal with depression over happiness, for example – recent studies have begun to focus more on the more upbeat among you.

One recent study has looked into the benefits, for society and individuals, of positive emotions – particularly being in awe.

The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests shared feelings of awe help people bond together, allowing us to accommodate the needs of others and become more empathetic.

The study, led by Paul Piff, an assistant professor of psychology and social behaviour at the University of California, Irvine, consisted of five stages, the first of which involved asking a sample of over 1,500 people across the United States about how often they experience awe.

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The volunteers were then given ten raffle tickets and subsequently asked if they wanted to donate their tickets out of choice. The researchers found a correlation between subjects who were generous enough to donate tickets and the increased tendency to experience awe.

The remaining stages created scenarios set up to induce awe in participants, and other activities to induce neutral or other emotions such as pride. The awe-inspiring experiences included watching coloured droplets falling into a bowl of milk in slow motion, or placing the subjects in a grove of tall eucalyptus trees. Negative emotions were solicited through a three-minute display of distressing scenes of natural destruction, such as volcanoes and tornadoes.

Researchers then measured participants’ “pro-social behaviour”. Pro-social behaviour is a display of positive, helpful and inclusive actions, showing care for the wellbeing of others. Participants who looked up at the eucalyptus trees during the awe-inspiring scenario were the ones who were more likely to pick up pens strangers dropped in the road by accident (these were actually undercover researchers planted to drop the pens near participants on purpose), compared with other individuals who had just stared at a building, instead of looking up the trees.

Psychologists say those who experienced awe were more prone to pro-social behaviour, and designed the study to take advantage of the strong awe-inspiring connection humans have with nature. The results showed that awe promotes altruism through perceptions of something greater than the individual, diminishing one’s own concerns. However, the conclusions also state further work is needed to find out why awe is linked with pro-social behaviour.

This joins another study, published in the journal Emotion in January this year, which linked feelings of awe with lower levels of the inflammation molecular interleukin-6 (IL-6) in each participants’ saliva. Led by Jennifer Stellar at the University of Toronto, the experiment involved two questionnaires that measured the tendency of individuals to experience different emotions. The results showed feelings of joy, contentment, awe and love decreased levels of inflammation molecules. However, only feelings of awe remained a significant predictor of decreased levels of IL-6 based on rigid statistical analysis.

This trend in focusing on the ways our bodies react to happiness and positive emotions is more than welcome. The Hungry Mind Lab at Goldsmiths, University of London, led by psychology lecturer Sophie von Stumm, is producing data coupling happy moods with boosts in cognitive performance through short-term memory and brain-processing tests. The team has recently launched moo-Q, an app which tests for correlations between mood and IQ to any volunteers outside the lab.

It is clear our bodies benefit from a cheerful outlook on life as researchers continue their work in this important field, and it could progress to help us become a happier, more productive and collective society.