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  • AutorenbildBirgit Ohlin

What is Awe? A Definition And 3 Ways To Live An ‘Awesome’ Life

We all have the leading part in the play of our life. Our aims and goals seem very important and time has long been added to the list of scarce resources. But every now and then a moment of awe manages to challenge our understanding of the world.

As a result we feel pleasantly insignificant and connected to the whole world. Whether it be the birth of a child, the sunrise from the top of a mountain or your favorite sports team winning, experiencing awe is a very powerful source of happiness. Not surprisingly, cutting-edge research shows that the answer to a truly AWE-some life may lie in – that’s right! – experiencing awe!

An Unforgettable Experience with Awe

It happened just after dinner, on a cold winter’s evening in Northern Lapland: our northern lights alarm went off! We stared at it in disbelief. Could it be true? We jumped up and hurried to put on several layers of clothing in order to avoid freezing while standing outside, starring at the clear Finnish sky.

As soon as we had left the log cabin and looked up, we saw it: a beautiful, green aurora borealis was mysteriously hovering across the sky. It was nothing short of breathtaking. We couldn’t help but starring at the ghost-like light which was slowly moving above us.

No one spoke. We stood there for hours until we could no longer feel our fingers and toes. It was a moment of awe none of us will ever forget.

To give you an idea of here is a video of beautiful northern lights captured in Scotland:

What is Awe?

Awe is an emotional response to a stimuli and has been defined as

“the feeling of being in the presence of something vast and greater than the self, that exceeds current knowledge structures” (Keltner & Haidt, 2003).

Similar to awe, “transcendence” is one of the 24 character strengths as defined by VIA (Virtues in Action). Building on those strengths has also shown to improve well-being and lead to flourishing. Interestingly however, compared to other positive emotions awe does not make us smile.

So experiencing awe has a broadening effect on our thoughts and actions and help us to build lasting resources.

What Triggers Awe?

As Keltner and Haidt (2003) outline, there are many awe-inducing stimuli. Originally experienced during religious or spiritual events, a feeling of awe has been recorded when an individual encounters contact with a higher power. Especially in Easter cultures, people feel awe towards powerful individuals.

Today’s main triggers of awe, however, are philosophical ones such as literature, music, painting and viewing landscapes. Awe is typically experienced in response to stimuli like natural wonders, stunning sunrises or events such as child birth.

For an experience of awe check out the following video on US Yosemite National Park:

Two Aspects to Awe: Vastness and Accomodation

According to Keltner and Haidt (2003), experiencing awe is connected with two essential aspects: a perceived vastness and a need for accommodation.


Vastness refers to the feeling of something perceived much larger than the self. Indeed, experiences of awe have found to lead to feelings of a diminished sense of self (Piff, Dietze, Feinberg, Stancato, & Keltner, 2015).

This experience challenges the concept of ourselves and the world around us. Accordingly, we may fail to make sense of the vastness we are experiencing. As a result, we need to adjust our understanding of the world, and our place within it, in order to make sense of an awe-inspiring event.


Our mental structures expand in order to accommodate what we have just experienced. Keltner and Haidt (2003) highlight that the need