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ResilienC - Issue 33, 2016
AWE & Resilience

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead – his eyes are closed. " ~Albert Einstein

Summer is typically a time to slow down, enjoy warmer weather and the outdoors with friends and family. So, it’s the perfect time to build our sense of AWE and wonder.

This is especially important because “awe experts” like Professor Dacher Keltnor (University California, Berkeley) believe we’re “awe-deprived.” We are spending less time in nature and other awe-inspiring activities like art, music and spiritual pursuits.


Many of us live and work in man-made bubbles. These environments limit and affect the quality of our daily contact with nature. For example, man-made light pollution is now so strong that a third of the world cannot see the Milky Way in the night sky. And that number jumps to nearly 80% of North Americans ! Read story

We spend lots of time working and commuting, checking for messages on our cellphones and googling on our tablets. Our lives are more “inner-focused” which disconnects us from others.

So, in addition to spending less time outdoors, adults also attend fewer arts and music events. This trend has contributed to arts and music programs being dismantled in our schools. And children now spend less time outdoors and in unstructured activities at school and home.

What is AWE?

The term “awe” has become watered down since it entered into North American slang. So, we say something or someone is “awesome” when we really mean “cool.”

However, scientists say “awe” has two essential qualities (Keltner & Haidt, 2003):
  • perceived vastness (feeling of being in the presence of something larger than ourselves)
  • accommodation (feeling a need to incorporate this experience of vastness that transcends our understanding of the world)
This combination tends to make people feel like they are just a tiny part of a vast interconnected universe . This can lead to feelings of uncertainty and even fear, especially when we’re faced with the sheer power of nature (e.g., wind storms, lightening, ocean waves, etc.).

Awe is generally thought to be elicited by nature, music, art, impressive physical feats or people, exceptional acts of goodness, spirituality/religion and meditation.

But awe can be found in daily life, too. Autumn leaves, a sleeping baby, a stranger’s act of kindness – all of these can have a profound impact on the beholder. Dr. Amie Gordon’s research (2015) at the University of California, Berkeley found that even bursts of “daily” awe predicted greater well-being and curiosity weeks later.

Why we feel AWE

From an evolutionary point of view, scientists theorize that awe exists to increase our sense of connectedness . This resulted in stronger groups and greater chance of survival (Keltner, 2016).

Another complementary theory is that awe encourages curiosity, which led to discovery of new lands, food and ways of doing things. Research suggests that “people who are more curious tend to get along better with other people.” So, curiosity also supports social cohesion and our ability to adapt (Anderson, as cited by J.A. Smith, 2016).

How AWE affects and helps us

Until quite recently, awe has received little attention from emotion researchers.

One of the most interesting findings is that awe is unique among “positive” emotions . Scientific measurement shows it is literally a “jaw-dropping,” “breath-taking,” “eye-opening” experience, instead of the smiles associated with its emotional cousins (Compos, Shiota & Keltner et al., 2013).

Researchers hypothesize that enhanced vision, increased oxygen intake and reduced physiological arousal associated with awe allow us to do the complex cognitive processing required to deal with “awe-inspiring” and “mind-blowing” experiences (Shiota, Neufeld & Yeung et al., 2011).

Here are just a few ways that awe seems to affect and help us:
  • Expands our sense of time – keeps us in the present (Rudd, Vohs & Aaker, 2012)
  • Helps us process information thoroughly – aids critical thinking (Shiota, Griskevicius & Neufeld, 2010)
  • Stimulates wonder and curiosity – leads to greater knowledge  (Shiota, 2016)
  • Encourages flexible, “outward” thinking which boosts creativity (Liberman, Blumenfeld, Hameini & Polack, 2012)
  • Connects us to nature – which leads to a “diminished” self  and sense of higher power (Keltner & Haidt, 2003)
  • Increases sense of well-being (Keltner, 2016)
  • Increases hope and appreciation of life (Schneider, 2011)
  • Enables “peak experiences” which can transform lives; supports search for meaning and purpose (Maslow, 1964)
Physiological effects
  • Reduces sympathetic nervous system influence – helps slow down heart rate, remain still, stay in the present moment and soak in information which facilitates complex cognitive processing (Shiota, Neufeld & Yeung et al., 2011)
  • Can reduce inflammation, some inflammatory diseases and improve health  by decreasing pro-inflammatory cytokines (Stellar, John-Henderson & Anderson et al., 2015)
Social effects
  • Increases helpfulness, kindness and altruism (Piff, Deitz & Feinberg et al., 2015)
  • May be a core dimension of gratitude (Emmons; interview by Keltner, 2010)
  • Increases sense of belonging to something larger than oneself (Keltner & Haidt, 2003)
  • Increases social cohesion (Keltner, 2016)

The relationship between AWE and resilience

When we look at the list above, it’s clear that awe-inspiring experiences can play a vital role in supporting our capacity for resilience. Since the key to resilience is relationships, awe’s effect on our connectedness and ability to respond to the needs of others is very important.

In addition to attachment relationships, other core competencies associated with resilience (Masten, 2009) can be affected by experiences of awe – such as agency and mastery motivation, executive functioning and problem-solving, self-regulation and meaning-making.

Resources to help build your AWE

“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, "What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?” ~Rachel Carson

How awe-some are you?
Take a minute and complete this brief online “Awe Quiz” to check your level of awe. You’ll receive immediate feedback as well as suggestions on how you can increase your awesomeness.  
Simple practices to nurture your own sense of awe
To help you along, leading AWE researchers suggest these easy-to-do practices.

Need a quick boost of awe to spark your creativity?
  • Here are two fabulous nature videos – the first is a video by Gogol Lobmayr, a legendary nature documentary photographer and director.   The second video is a 13-minute excerpt from the “Planet Earth” series, a collaboration of many nature photographers using awe-inspiring new technology.

  • Visit “Shots of Awe” on YouTube, where science, philosophy, and inspiration collide. Host Jason Silva gets us thinking about the awesome world around us. 
Meet an awe-inspiring person
Following up on our March issue about “Cultural Competence,” here is a heart-warming story about a truly awe-some woman who has scraped off 72,354 “hate” messages in Berlin and other parts of Germany over the past 30 years.

A personal story of sharing awe
One cool November day, I was walking to pick up some bread for dinner. I turned the corner onto a busy street and was absolutely awestruck by the sunset. I stopped and just stared at Mother Nature’s spectacular show of iridescent purple, red and bright orange. People, street and cars were bathed in a pinkish-orange glow. After a couple minutes, I realized I was the only person looking up and was blocking part of the sidewalk. A very disgruntled man asked me what I was doing. I simply pointed to the sky. That was all it took—the two of us stood there quietly. Gradually more people looked and joined us. Time stood still that evening for strangers joined in amazement and awe. It was wonder-ful!

Need a reminder to look for awesome things every day?
We hope our latest RIRO poster inspires you to spend more time in nature and to look for awe-inspiring things in everyday life. (Darlene has been rooting through her nature photos and has come up with all of the pictures for this issue. It encouraged her to revisit some of her favorite awe-inspiring experiences, too.)

Read a wonderful book
“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.” ~Rachel Carson                                   

Treat yourself by reading The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson (author of A Silent Spring) with superb photography by Nick Kelsh. It’s a gift to the children of the world.

AWE-some resources to help kids

Children seem to be awestruck fairly frequently—it’s part of the magic of childhood. Fortunately, they don’t operate with the same filters that adults do – resentment, anger, social comparisons, fear of embarrassment, etc.

So, when little kids ask “Why?” it’s just their natural curiosity about the amazing world around them.

“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”
~Rachel Carson

Role modeling awe
Young children often learn best by watching the behaviour of important adults around them.
So, when adults are open to experiences of awe and wonder and share it with children around them on a regular basis, they are setting the stage for a lifetime of wonder and curiosity.

Articles to help you encourage children’s magic moments and purpose
  • Here’s a terrific article from folks in Australia with ideas on helping ourselves and children keep our sense of awe and wonder.

  • This article discusses how to use findings from awe research to build a sense of purpose in children.
Awe-inspiring video
This 2-1/2 minute video excerpt from “Planet Earth” is used by researchers and educators alike to inspire awe in children. 
Children’s books
Here is Jennifer’s selection of children’s books to support children’s wonder and awe. For more books that inspire children, follow this link.

Here are 10 simple activities for young children to help build awe and a positive outlook that support their resilience. 


Upcoming RIRO-hosted training

Participants have described our Resiliency Skills Training and Trainer “Intensives” as “awesome,” “inspirational” and “transformative.” Why don’t you join us?
  • RIRO Resiliency Skills Training (for frontline and leaders)
    July 11 & 12, 2016, Toronto
    More info
  • 5-day combined RIRO & BBT Trainer “Intensive” (for trainers who offer training to parents and/or service providers)
    November 7-11, 2016, Toronto
    More info

“Songs of Resilience” Project Update

Because of the support of our generous donors, we met our Phase 1 goal$3,000.
We’re working on recording three musical stories with simple sing-a-longs. This summer, Darlene is creating the resource sheets for service providers and parents. We plan to pilot these in the fall in child care centres and homes.

We wish to thank everyone who donated to this project. Here are some new donors to add to our “List of Donors”: TD Canada Trust, Jennifer de Groot and Gordon Holton.


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