How can we live a good life? It’s a question psychologist Dacher Keltner has spent much of his professional career trying to answer. In his latest book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, he argues that an appreciation of the world — whether through experiencing the natural beauty of Yosemite National Park or simply being with a friend — not only benefits us mentally and emotionally but is a crucial part of our physiological health. A big part of well-being, he says, comes from what primatologist Jane Goodall calls “being amazed at things outside yourself.” And his studies show this is a skill we can cultivate.
A professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, Keltner has authored more than two hundred research papers examining emotion, neuroscience, aesthetics, morality, and decision-making. His other books — including The Power Paradox, The Compassionate Instinct, and Born to Be Good — offer a science-based, optimistic view of human behavior and culture. Pushing back against philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s description of life as “nasty, brutish, and short,” Keltner believes evolution has given Homo sapiens emotions like gratitude, joy, amusement, and compassion because they help us survive and build cooperative, ethical societies.
Although he spends a lot of time designing experiments in his laboratory, Keltner’s work often takes him outside of academia. He was the scientific adviser for the Pixar animated feature Inside Out, which personifies the emotions of an eleven-year-old girl experiencing a disruptive move with her family. He has also consulted extensively for Google, Apple, and Pinterest.
Born in Jalisco, Mexico, Keltner was raised in California by parents who were part of the counterculture: his father was an artist; his mother, a literature professor. He received his BA in psychology and sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his PhD from Stanford. He did postdoctoral work with pioneering psychologist Paul Ekman, and in 1996 he joined the faculty at UC Berkeley, where he directs the Greater Good Science Center.
Despite having “taught happiness” to thousands of people, Keltner writes, “I have been a pretty wound-up, anxious person for significant chunks of my life.” If so, I couldn’t tell from speaking to him. Over video chat from Paris, where he was on sabbatical, he struck me as remarkably upbeat, even when discussing weighty topics like the loss of his younger brother, Rolf — to whom he dedicates Awe.
Leviton: In your new book you say it’s difficult to define awe because, in many respects, it’s an experience beyond words. Nevertheless you and Jonathan Haidt at New York University have tried. What did you come up with? What are we feeling when we feel awe?
Keltner: It took a lot of work to develop that definition. I think one reason science had hesitated to study awe is because it does feel ineffable, beyond what William James, in “The Will to Believe,” called the “tattered fragments of thought.” To define it, we read a lot of earlier writings about awe: accounts of spiritual experiences, the Bhagavad Gita, Saint Paul on the road to Damascus, and so on. We read anthropological accounts of mystical states and trance states. And we read philosophy, most notably Edmund Burke’s 1757 A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. It’s the best book on awe, and it was published when he was twenty-seven years old.
From all these works, two components emerged as central to awe. One is bigness, vastness, power beyond our normal frame of reference — though sometimes we can feel awe when we encounter very small things: a single cell, an etching on a grain of sand. The other is mystery — something we don’t understand — which triggers the need for accommodation: the process by which we adjust our mental structures to assimilate a new experience.
Simply put, awe is the feeling of being in the presence of a vast mystery.
Leviton: When we encounter something huge and beyond our understanding, it can also make us feel small and insignificant. Are most people deflated or inflated when they experience awe?
Keltner: In my lab we do a lot of research on what we call the “small self,” which came out of reading Julian of Norwich, the English mystic who talked about being a “simple creature” — little, inconsequential, heading for the abyss. Yet for her the entire universe was reflected in a hazelnut, and God cares for everything no matter how small.
Contrary to the Western tendency to inflate the self, awe makes the self feel small. You pay less attention to it. It occupies your thoughts less. You’re more open to things outside of you. And it turns out this often isn’t deflating at all. It’s uplifting. It’s freeing: Wow, this redwood tree is a thousand years old! That storm has such power!
But you’re pointing to a fine line. For most of us something is awe-inspiring because we feel in some way a part of it. If you feel disconnected, the experience might be alienating or even horrifying. Being part of a religious congregation whose doctrines you don’t believe in, for example, is going to make you feel distant, troubled.
Leviton: I can imagine the first Homo sapiens looking at the night sky and feeling overwhelmed by it all.
Keltner: Yes. If you’re an outer-space fan, it’s amazing: I can’t believe I’m looking at infinity and we are all made up of cosmic dust! But some people are freaked out when they encounter something so big and so far beyond their understanding. Children, for example, can have a very hard time when they find out about infinity or eternity. It can be frightening for them.
Leviton: The word awe comes from Middle English and Old Norse words referring to fear, dread, horror, and terror. Is the experience of awe still bound to these emotions?
Keltner: Emotions aren’t discrete bubbles. They are blending into each other all the time. You might be feeling awe and wonder at the miracle of life, and also realizing that we all die, which perhaps moves you closer to terror. In our work we try to find what’s true in it all.
Leviton: It seems to me we can’t really cultivate awe without cultivating mindfulness. Do most of us notice the world well enough to connect to it on the level you advocate?
Keltner: We’ve done a few experiments to get subjects to experience awe in a contemplative way. One was the “awe walk” study we published in the journal Emotion, in collaboration with Virginia Sturm of the Weill Institute for Neurosciences. Older adults who took fifteen-minute awe walks outdoors once a week for eight weeks reported less distress in their daily lives and increased positive emotions. The control group took the same walks but without being prompted beforehand to cultivate awe. The control group smiled less in the selfies they were asked to take, included less of the landscape in the photos — in the awe-walk group’s photos, the people became increasingly smaller in relation to the landscape — and were more distracted during the walks.
So, yes, you can find awe by slowing down and noticing more. We can teach people how to move between the small and the vast. When I’m looking at this book next to me, I’m also thinking about the history of literature. I notice the leaves on the trees, the patterns of snowflakes and think: Where does this come from? What’s the story, and how am I part of it?
Leviton: When I started your book, I didn’t think I experienced much awe in my life, but as I read, I realized I had felt well-being, indescribable joy, and gratitude while listening to music, or standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or being present at the birth of my children.
Keltner: A lot of people who read the book have that realization that awe has been a part of their lives all along. One reader told me she feels awe when she’s gardening; another, when he coaches Little League or listens to classical music. I believe awe is a basic state of mind that we can access pretty easily if we take time to notice it.
In cultures around the world births are occasions for awe — witnessing, as it were, the change from nonexistence to existence. You look at a child and see the history of the family and feel a transcendent sense of love or responsibility. Death, too, can inspire awe.
Leviton: One of your earliest experiences of awe took place at the Louvre in Paris. Can you tell me about it?
Keltner: My dad, Richard Keltner, is an artist, and he took me to museums a lot when I was growing up. I’m forever grateful for that. To this day, whenever I am in a city, I’ll find an art museum. I’m a scientist and love reductionistic facts, but art liberates me. In 1977 my family was at the Louvre, and my dad suggested my younger brother, Rolf, and I look at room 837, where they kept the Dutch masters: Johannes Vermeer, Jan Steen, and Pieter de Hooch. There were about five de Hooch paintings, including La Buveuse from 1658: a man standing near a table pours a drink for a young woman. It blew my mind, even at the age of fifteen. The light! The stillness! I’d been raised in a chaotic context — the late-sixties counterculture in the Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles — and those paintings told me there was wonder in the stillness of everyday life, if I could pay attention. Standing in front of the painting was like a psychedelic experience. Everything zoomed in, and suddenly I felt expansive, quiet. Like I was disappearing.
Leviton: You’re not afraid to use words like soul and spirituality, but you don’t attach them to religion.
Keltner: I’ve struggled with that. When we collect stories of awe, some of the respondents are fundamentalist Christians who say what you might expect about Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and so on. But about 90 percent of Americans, religious or not, believe in some sort of supernatural, spiritual force. After my brother passed away in January 2019, I became more open to listening to the stories of believers. William James grappled with this in The Varieties of Religious Experience. He believed spirit was what was life-giving, primary, and good. Indigenous people believe spirit is an animating force in the world. That rings true to me.
Many people experience nature as divine, almost godlike. When describing the Grand Canyon or Yosemite National Park, they use words like magical, amazing, and ethereal. So I try to think of spirit in the Jamesian sense: as this primary essence that is good and that connects us to other people.
I’ve been humbled to give talks in churches about awe. I’ve heard that Mormon ministers are citing the book. I think talking about awe helps us find common ground outside the debates about beliefs and cosmologies. Why not talk about what’s primary and good in life?
Standing in front of the painting was like a psychedelic experience. Everything zoomed in, and suddenly I felt expansive, quiet. Like I was disappearing.
Leviton: I want to talk a bit about emotions, which you’ve studied for years and argue are a positive influence on us. You say emotions organize, rather than disrupt, rational thinking. I expect most people, having made some really bad decisions while angry, would disagree with that.
Keltner: You’re not alone in thinking that some emotions interfere with rationality. Many great Western thinkers and philosophers have been hostile to the emotions, especially to their place in decision-making. They champion reason as opposed to passion. Plato, Kant, and many others treat emotions as disruptive, irrational, biased. And sometimes they are. But that view has shifted over time. Charles Darwin and philosopher David Hume both felt that passions guide reasoning. Hume, in his Treatise of Human Nature, writes, “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.”
We now know from neuroscience that moral and political decision-making are connected to gut feelings that arise unconsciously. The very old regions of the brain — the midbrain, the periaqueductal gray — are the places where we assess fairness, harm, justice, purity; where we decide whether a person is trustworthy, and also whether a piece of fruit is rotten. It’s all part of the autonomic system that evaluates threats. And those older regions project their findings into your cortex, where rational decisions are made.
What emotions do is prioritize the information you deliberate about. When you’re in a complicated social context — a work function or a family reunion — and there’s a lot going on, your feelings guide you. At a cocktail party you might have an emotional response to someone you fear is flirting with your spouse. Your rational brain is then going to evaluate that response. We need that kind of interplay. Emotions prioritize. Studies show how fear, for instance, drives decision-making, for better or for worse. My colleague Jonathan Haidt says it’s our gut feelings about purity that make us care about the environment and drive activism to protect the planet.
The single greatest predictor of whether social protests will work is anger. The angrier people feel, the more work gets done in a political movement. A lot of rational people predicted there was no way Trump could win in 2016, but he was speaking to the emotions of a large number of Americans. We need to think in a more nuanced way about how emotions guide us and where reason might get it wrong.
Leviton: I was just thinking that resentment is a very prevalent emotion in the U.S. right now. But it’s not a part of the six universal emotions Paul Ekman noted in his famous studies of facial expressions: sadness, enjoyment, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust. In 2017 you and your colleague Alan Cowen identified twenty-seven different self-reported emotions, including adoration, confusion, and relief. Darwin, in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, identified fifty-three different emotions. The nineteenth-century French physician Duchenne believed that human faces express at least sixty discrete emotions.
Keltner: Ekman has been a huge influence on the study of emotion, and the field was stuck on his six universal emotions for about forty years. To some extent it still is. For the past thirty years I have done a lot of work on other emotions, such as embarrassment, love, passion, desire, and of course awe. Alan Cowen and I asked respondents to rate more than two thousand pieces of music, short videos, or vocalizations based on the emotions they evoke, and we found emotional experience goes far beyond the limits imposed by Ekman.
We are always aware of other people’s emotions, and feeling the same emotions brings us together. Partners in romantic relationships feel similar emotions. Parents and children share emotional states when they bond.
Leviton: Are emotions culturally determined to some extent? An emotion like shame is much more important in Japan than in the U.S.
Keltner: Yes, emotions are profoundly influenced by culture. The prevalence of an emotion varies in different countries and among different ethnicities. The modesty and self-effacement you see everywhere in Japan reflects the prevalence of shame and embarrassment in their society. In parts of the Mediterranean and in the southern U.S., you’ll find an honor-based anger that’s ready to explode at any moment. It’s not just the prevalence of the emotion that differs but the content of it: What are we feeling the emotion about? We’ve found that in China people commonly feel awe for teachers. They revere their teachers. When I tell teachers in the U.S. about that, they sometimes start crying. They rarely experience that depth of appreciation for their profession. In the West awe tends to be more nature-based.
We also explain emotions differently in different cultures. East Asian people see their emotions as being caused by social, contextual factors: “I was around a lot of high-status people, and I felt shame in their presence.” Western Europeans tend to internalize emotions: “I felt shame because I have terrible character flaws.”
Leviton: I’ve noticed in my own life how emotions can move from another person or group into my own consciousness. I may be perfectly happy, but then I talk to my daughter about difficulties she’s having, and I find my emotions moving toward hers. Is that kind of emotional contagion part of the evolutionary story of how Homo sapiens formed groups and began to care for each other?
Keltner: I think we are always aware of other people’s emotions, and feeling the same emotions brings us together. Partners in romantic relationships feel similar emotions. Parents and children share emotional states when they bond. We imitate each other’s expressive behavior. We feel what others feel and begin to interpret things in a similar way. The idea that emotions arise entirely from within is an illusion.
I’m like you: how my daughters are doing has a profound effect on my emotions for days. Michael Tomasello, in his book Becoming Human, says a defining characteristic of the human mind is “intersubjectivity”: the shared perception of reality. When we share a culture, we come to see things in a similar way. In fact, shared feeling creates culture. And one of the most powerful pathways to that is emotional contagion.
After a terrorist attack in Madrid, research psychologists found the surviving victims initially had individual reactions, but as the discussion of the events spread through society, citizens began to have a collective rather than an individual response. We are affected by the reaction of others.
Leviton: There’s a feedback loop: when we see someone frown, it might make us frown, and that frown sends messages to our brain that we might be unhappy.
Keltner: Right. You put your body into that posture, slump a bit. You begin to think, Oh, I remember when I felt this way before. In fact, yesterday I was upset by what my partner said. It starts a cascade of processes.
Leviton: Let me ask a little more about Darwin. It seems his book about animal and human expression was mostly neglected in the decades after he published it. Why was this part of his work ignored by the same scientific community that embraced natural selection?
Keltner: Darwin put forth his theory of evolution in On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, and there’s not a single statement about the human species in it. It’s all about mollusks and birds and geological forms. His book shook up the world. Talk about a big idea! There was lots of controversy, and he got attacked by creationists — at the time about half of all scientists were creationists — who believed God created the world. Some of them thought that maybe the animals had evolved the way Darwin said, but humans were not part of that; we’d been designed by God.
Darwin responded with two books: The Descent of Man and The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1871 and 1872, respectively. They were going to be one book, but he broke them into two. He related our emotions back to our primate origins. He saw emotions in chimpanzees, dogs, cats, horses, bees, and birds. He thought there were six or seven types of cat calls — and the best cat experts today have basically verified that. He observed that bees have a unique buzz when they’re angry, and he was right. But the cultural relativists of the twentieth century, like anthropologist Margaret Mead, didn’t like his claims about the universality of emotion. They thought our feelings are a creation of culture.
And then young Paul Ekman found that New Guineans interpret the facial expressions of six emotions the same way we do in the West. Everyone thought Ekman did that after reading Darwin, but he told me he hadn’t even read The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.
Darwin wrote about more than fifty emotions, and he did write about cultural variations. He didn’t just write about facial expressions, either. He wrote about eight modalities of expression, including posture and voice. I think the field mostly forgot his work because Ekman’s methods — which involved 110 black-and-white photos of white actors portraying six universal emotions and some neutral expressions — drew so much attention. There are thousands of papers written about those images, and they cover only about 5 percent of what Darwin wrote. He’s much more nuanced than most people imagine.
Leviton: When a study gives people limited choices — or uses, for instance, only Caucasian faces — the researchers put their thumb on the scale. In your work you try to maximize the number of choices subjects have when they are asked to identify emotions from images or prompts.
Keltner: Methodology is a massive problem in science, which is why replicating results is so important. Ekman had one positive emotion in his list — happiness or joy — with a smile as its expression. Is that all there is to positive human emotions? Come on! In my work I’ve documented ten to twelve positive emotions, including amusement, contentedness, pride, love, and awe. Laughter is one of the most universal expressions of emotion. Chimps laugh; bats laugh.
Leviton: Can emotions be faked? We can smile to disguise evil intent, but other expressions, like blushing, we don’t seem to be able to control. Can we think our way into emotional states?
Keltner: I think some people can. They can configure their faces and their bodies to show the emotion and maybe even feel it. There’s not a lot of work on that possibility. We can kind of tell when emotions are fake, but it’s not foolproof. We get tricked a lot. Swindlers depend upon it.
Leviton: When people would ask me what it was like to be in the music business in Los Angeles, I’d say, “Sincerity is very important. If you can learn to fake that, you’ll be fine.” [Laughs.]
But let’s go back and talk about awe. When I moved to the Sierras eighteen years ago, watching the snow fall filled my heart. Now, having survived some horrific winters — with trees coming down on my house, power outages, and getting snowed in for days — I experience fear, not awe, when I see snow falling. I have to will myself to feel any appreciation or gratitude for it. Does that make sense?
Keltner: Sure. Part of emotion is context. Getting into nature is a reliable way to experience awe, but I certainly agree that part of it is will. After my brother died of cancer at a relatively young age, finding awe became a matter of will for me. I was not remotely close to noticing opportunities for awe in my life. When someone close to you dies, you don’t just lose the person. You lose the shared conversations, the shared understandings, the time together. And when Rolf passed away, I lost my pathway to awe. He and I were “awe brothers”: we backpacked together, took fishing trips, went to concerts.
I wouldn’t say I was depressed after his death, but I was struggling. For me, coming back into the world meant making an effort to seek out opportunities for awe. I got into the mountains, as I often have, but I also took a chance on things I was not so familiar with, like spirituality. A lot of people, in the midst of a crisis, need to find the will to keep looking for awe.
Leviton: You say the experience of awe is available to everyone and does not depend on wealth, ethnicity, social status, or privilege, but isn’t it more difficult to feel awe if you live in poverty?
Keltner: No, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. There is a study by Jake Moskowitz and Paul Piff that examines the relationship between types of happiness and wealth. They studied amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, enthusiasm, love, and pride, and they concluded that having a higher social class was associated with greater feelings of contentment, pride, and amusement — all self-oriented emotions — whereas a lower social class was associated with compassion, love, and awe: emotions with a more outward orientation.
Awe is all around us, and you don’t need money to experience it. In fact, the transactional nature of our lives might get in the way. That’s good news for most people. I’ve spent a lot of time with prisoners in San Quentin, and even they feel awe, though perhaps not as often as you and I.
Leviton: Let’s talk about them. You first went to San Quentin in 2016 to speak to men in a restorative-justice program led by the incarcerated. They must be living with incredible shame and regret.
Keltner: I spent dozens of hours inside and saw some of their struggles. I still know several of the guys and visit them. The prison system works against awe, for sure. But these men have found awe in spirituality — there’s a lot of prayer and meditation on the inside — and through things like basketball, music, art, drama. When I asked what made them feel awe, some said their daughter, their cellie, the light outside on the yard, reading the Koran, getting their GED, singing in the church choir. This fit with our findings that everyday awe often comes from other people: for instance, from the moral beauty of acts of kindness.
And prisoners find awe in redemption: the idea that I can change, that we’re trying to change together.
A lot of what we study at the Greater Good Science Center is everyday awe: We look at a flower and appreciate its beauty. And then there’s the transformative awe that comes out of epiphanies — insights that arrive with special force and change everything. They are like a rush. You have one way of understanding the world, and suddenly a new way of seeing emerges.
I think of my brother, when he was having stomach ailments and we didn’t know what they were, and then he was diagnosed with colon cancer. Being the scientist I am, I wanted to know exactly how many nodes were affected: twenty-two. That’s right on the edge of stage IV, so I knew what was up. These facts changed everything for Rolf. It might be difficult to say it, but there’s awe in that moment, too.
When we gather in a stadium to support the same sports team, or when we gather to pray in a house of worship, we are merging our activity, both physical and mental. We’re not alone.
Leviton: Humans have long sought to alter their consciousness, from Indigenous people using ayahuasca to hippies taking LSD. Sufi dervishes whirl as part of a religious ritual, and little kids like to spin around to get pleasantly dizzy. Is this urge to reach some transcendent state a part of our primate history, our basic social organization?
Keltner: People are very social and create many ways of bonding, some of which involve ingesting mind-altering substances. Primates tend to huddle together when they experience cold or food scarcity, physically binding to each other. Awe has this quality of togetherness as well. When we gather in a stadium to support the same sports team, or when we gather to pray in a house of worship, we are merging our activity, both physical and mental. We’re not alone: primatologist Jane Goodall believes chimpanzees not only construct culture but have a sense of spirituality.
Leviton: Researchers are still puzzling over things like why we cry. Emotional tears contain hormones and proteins that aren’t present in basal tears, which are always present, and reflex tears, which are released when we get an irritant in our eyes. Is there an evolutionary advantage to crying when feeling strong emotions?
Keltner: Tears are symptoms of shifts in what’s called our “calm and connection” physiology. They help us connect with others. That’s a massive evolutionary benefit. Tears may serve as a signaling device — I can trust that person because they cry at the same movies I do. But it’s probably the deeper shifts in social behavior that are most important.
Leviton: Are there physical benefits of feeling awe?
Keltner: Yes, and we have a lot of data showing this. You know, I’m at UC Berkeley, and I have long hair, and I look like a surfer, even though I’m not one. But I’ve taught a lot of medical doctors as part of my job. They like data about physiology and want to see improvements in life expectancy. So I figure if someone who looks like me is going to make a case to them for the benefits of awe, I’ve got to do it at the physiological level, too.
And what we know is that awe is associated with elevated activation of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is actually a bundle — it is the longest nerve in our autonomic nervous system, in fact. It regulates a lot of things: digestion, the involuntary constriction of muscles, the heart and lungs, head movements. If the vagus nerve is active, I handle trauma better. I feel less stress.
Awe is also the only positive emotion associated with less inflammation. And it’s associated with less physical pain, which is one of the central challenges of aging. Physical pain is a multibillion-dollar medical problem, and awe can help people with it. Also with depression and anxiety, as we’ve shown in our awe-walk study. Those are important results.
So when I go in front of five hundred doctors who are looking for something they can prescribe to help people with long COVID or heart disease, I can tell them to “prescribe awe.” Get patients outdoors, have them listen to music.
Leviton: In Awe you cite a study about the mental state of people who spent time looking at an impressive tree versus a control group who looked at a dull building nearby. The people who looked at the tree emerged with more generous hearts.
Keltner: It took a long time to design a proper study for this. First we did some flawed ones that involved subjects looking at fractal images in the lab. Then we freed ourselves to get out of the lab. Paul Piff and I took students to an awe-inspiring stand of blue-gum eucalyptus trees on the UC Berkeley campus and had them examine the branches, leaves, and light for two minutes. Another group stood in the same spot at the same time of day but made a ninety-degree turn and looked up at the science building. In response to questions afterward, the first group reported feeling less entitled and self-centered. They actually argued they should be paid less for their participation in the study than we’d offered.
Leviton: And then one of your accomplices walked by and dropped a whole bunch of books and pens. The participants who’d viewed the eucalyptus picked up more of the dropped objects than the group who looked up at the building.
Keltner: Yes, and they had no idea that was part of the experiment.
We also took students up to the top of the bell tower on campus and had one group look out at the view of the Bay Area, while the control group looked at the wall. Those who experienced the vista tested humbler than those who didn’t see it but stood in the same spot. We found an increase in kindness among the group who took in the beautiful view.
I love dinosaurs, so we had a grad student take students to see a life-size replica of a T. rex in the UC Museum of Paleontology. Again, we also had a control group stand in the same spot but look down a hallway instead of at the T. rex. Those who experienced the dinosaur gave responses to questions that showed they were thinking less individually and more communally. For instance, we asked them to complete “I am . . .” statements twenty times — a basic way to find out what someone’s sense of identity is. Their answers showed their sense of self had shifted.
In another experiment we had a group of people experience Yosemite for the first time, while a control group visited the Fisherman’s Wharf tourist district in San Francisco. The participants had never been to these places before. Both were on vacation and having fun, but they came away with different results. In that case, we had the subjects draw a picture of themselves, which is a standard measure of awareness. Awe has the effect of making people feel smaller, humbler, not as dominant. The Yosemite test subjects drew themselves smaller than the Fisherman’s Wharf group, and they showed more of the landscape and environment — the same effect we saw in photographs from the awe-walk study. A sense of wonder can be measured both by how you report your state of mind and by your behavior.
Leviton: The rafting trip you took didn’t have a control group, but you examined two groups of participants before and after to gauge how the experience affected them.
Keltner: Right. When Stacy Bare of the Sierra Club heard about our study of awe’s effect on inflammation, he suggested we set up an experiment with rafts on the American River in Sacramento. We had one group of students from under-resourced high schools in Oakland and Richmond, California, and another group of military veterans. We gathered measures of stress, well-being, cortisol, and so on the week before and the week after the trip. We filmed it all with GoPro cameras, including the fearful shrieks and vocal bursts of Ooh! and Wow! Both groups reported greater well-being and better relations with friends and families in the week after, and the vets showed a 32 percent drop in symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The endorphin high of physical exertion, the coordinated effort, the breather from city life, and the beauty of the trees and the river all played a part. But in a closer analysis we found it was the awe people felt that brought many of the measurable benefits for mind and body.
Leviton: Can you talk about what French sociologist Émile Durkheim called “collective effervescence”?
Keltner: Durkheim looked at events like graduations, Bastille Day parades, sporting competitions, church services, and so on to understand how rituals bind us together. At the Greater Good Science Center our approach has been less focused on a hypothesis. It’s more like “Let’s see what people’s stories tell us.” Someone might tell us about watching the Red Sox win the World Series in 2004 after an eighty-six-year drought, an event they’ll remember for the rest of their life. Someone else will tell us how they cry when they sing with others in a church choir. Others experience a special high when they are dancing with fifty thousand people at a music festival. I took my daughter to a Kid Cudi concert, and when the crowd all sang together, I got goose bumps. I’ve also experienced awe at a political rally where everyone throws up their fist and shouts, “No justice, no peace!” together.
Durkheim believed that the core of religion is when we move in unison with other people: chanting, trance dancing, and practicing other rituals. Modern neuroscience shows that when we move together, your physiology begins to resemble mine. This is why awe often comes up in sports.
When you go to a wedding and maybe haven’t danced for a while, and now you’re out there dancing with your six-year-old niece, it can feel amazing. Doing the wave at a sporting event can be a rush. That indescribable collective feeling we get when we move or sing in unison is spectacular. Doing tai chi or yoga in a group is very different than doing it solo.
Leviton: This reminds me of when I was about eight years old, and my mother made me go square-dancing. I can still remember the feeling of learning the allemande, do-si-do, and sashay. It gave me a feeling of satisfaction and joy that less-structured activities often didn’t. And it connected me to the pulse of music, which became my life’s passion.
Keltner: Darwin himself described getting a shiver in his backbone and experiencing “intense pleasure” when he heard an anthem coming from the King’s College Chapel, even though he was “so utterly destitute of an ear, that I cannot perceive a discord.”
I want to remind people that awe is about what’s most human in us, and there are earthy, fun ways to find it. You don’t have to meditate. You can dance! I go to college football games a few times a year. I’m not a big fan, and we have a midlevel team, but when the fans all cheer a great play, it’s thrilling, and it’s something we can enjoy across a political divide.
We’re experiencing a shift in our culture. Young people today want more collective thinking. The rugged individualism of the past isn’t as inspiring to them. They want to know: How do the pieces work together?
Leviton: Let’s talk a bit about flow and how it relates to sports, music, and other creative activities. When you’re in a flow state, distractions disintegrate. You have the feeling of being in exactly the right place, and it’s all effortless. Time seems to melt away. What’s going on?
Keltner: It’s a state close to awe. Flow is when you are doing something challenging, but your skills match it, and you lose self-awareness. The self seems to dissolve. You can become lost in a meditative state while teaching or doing the dishes, and it’s delightful, but flow is a bit different. It’s an emotion that tracks your performance of activities.
I interviewed Yumi Kendall, the cellist. She’s clearly feeling flow when she plays. Then, when she steps back and thinks about the meaning of her playing — how it’s a part of music history; how it honors her grandfather John, who brought the Suzuki method to the U.S. — she also feels awe.
Leviton: I wanted to ask about your conversations with Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who talked about how his early experience of awe eventually became part of his “philosophy of movement” with his team.
Keltner: I’ve always loved basketball, and I admire Steve Kerr. He believes a great team is about collective effervescence: the right players, the right movements. It defies description. It would take ten years to analyze all the various synchronicities among five fast athletes on the floor.
But Kerr takes a deep approach to the game. When I asked about his philosophy of movement, expecting some analytic approach, he talked about his grandparents building an orphanage for child survivors of the Armenian genocide. The moral beauty he saw in that helped him succeed as a coach. Thousands of people react emotionally to what Kerr told me is essentially a dance on the court. When I asked him what his life in sports means to him, he said, “It is a civic duty to give people joy.”
Leviton: There’s often a lot of focus in team sports on individual stars, but coaches and players know that the coordination of effort is crucial.
Keltner: I think we’re experiencing a shift in our culture. Young people today want more collective thinking. The rugged individualism of the past isn’t as inspiring to them. They want to know: How do the pieces work together? Michael Jordan was a dominant player in his time, but he probably wouldn’t have won half the titles he did if he hadn’t had Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman on the team.
Leviton: The relatively new field of neuroaesthetics explores how the arts move us emotionally. You say that the arts are a way of “archiving awe.” What do you mean?
Keltner: We are massively cultural animals. We started creating musical instruments forty thousand years ago, if not longer. Cave paintings began much longer ago than that. We’ve been creating legends and stories for many thousands of years as well. Our societies — Mesoamerican, West African, Māori — are full of art and apply patterns to everything, including tattooing the body. What in the world is going on?
In the field of cultural evolution there’s a new thesis — put forth by Joseph Henrich in books like Why Humans Cooperate and others — that culture is the stored, shared repository of helpful knowledge. In the Arctic they have rich generational knowledge about how to find seals. A young person doesn’t have to learn by trial and error; they just ask an elder, or they access that knowledge through a story or painting. Henrich shows that our brains and biology have been shaped by an interaction of culture and genetics.
Awe makes us more social. It’s good for our bodies. It makes us creative. So let’s create cultural artifacts that let us experience awe together. That could be why sacred chants sound similar around the world, or why visual patterns like wheels, spirals, and mandalas appear in many different cultures. These are all a fast track to the shared experience of awe. Art astonishes us, it shocks us, it presents new ideas. The cultivation of awe through art makes our culture stronger and more efficient.
Leviton: So you see art as much more than self-expression?
Keltner: People might think of art as simply aesthetics, just something that makes you feel good. But for Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, the point of visual art was to evoke mystical feelings. Edmund Burke wrote that awe arises from art that is powerful and mysterious. Rebecca Stone, in books like The Jaguar Within, has written about how Mesoamerican visual art connects to dance, ceremony, shamanism, and the use of medicinal plants. Some of that art contains material from hallucinations and dreams.
When we look at a painting, a network of neurons is activated in the anterior cingulate cortex, which stirs your heart, lungs, immune system, and so on. Viewing art activates the dopamine network in the brain. This is all outside of the prefrontal cortex, where we ascribe meaning to what we’re seeing.
Leviton: In your discussion of aesthetics and awe, you connect the dots between the mysticism of William Blake, transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, and author Michael Pollan, who’s part of a movement to use psychedelics to increase the potential of our minds.
Keltner: If I had the chops and the background, I would write a book about transcendent art. I think Virginia Woolf’s work is about transcendence. You’d know better than I would if Jerry Garcia was aiming at transcendence. The German Romantics were trying to get away from what they saw as an oppressive emphasis on science and industrialism and refocus on nature and emotion. There are books still to be written on this topic.
Leviton: One stereotype of awe is that it leaves us dumbfounded, ready to fall victim to dogma, disinformation, or a controlling leader or guru. Are we vulnerable during a bout of wonder?
Keltner: This is one of the challenges of emotion, and why we need to use reason to figure out the context, the costs and the benefits. Anger leads to really effective social protest, and it also leads to people killing other people. Shame can make you modest and self-effacing, and it can be depressing. Envy can lead us to work harder, or it can cause us to undermine colleagues. Awe has that double-edged nature as well.
Take conspiracies. Conspiracies are awe-inspiring. They are often big, with plenty of mystery. I can remember hearing about a supposed conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy, and I was awestruck. Jim Jones, the Branch Davidians, the Heaven’s Gate cult, and Charles Manson all offered to explain mysteries using hidden truths. During the Rwandan genocide there was a lot of collective dancing, drug use, and ritual in service to murder.
I always want to ask, “Is this emotion serving the greater good?”
Leviton: You describe kids nowadays as “awe deprived.”
Keltner: At the Greater Good Science Center we are designing a course using some of the principles of the book to get kids to think about awe, about life-death cycles, about the systems around them. There’s no doubt kids are more depressed, stressed, and anxious than they used to be. I had a pretty wild childhood, wasn’t a very good student, didn’t score so well on tests, but I felt a lot of awe, and it helped my life forever. My parents were fine with me roaming and wandering and looking into anything I was interested in — even if it happened to be the statistics of the Los Angeles Dodgers instead of my social-studies homework.
It breaks my heart that the pandemic affected young people so much. They weren’t together at school or concerts or sports, and they certainly weren’t wandering around unsupervised and discovering new things.
The technological devices we have now can put us in touch with some awe-inspiring stuff. A classroom teacher can easily access the original Japanese document they’re talking about, for example. But the devices themselves are not inspiring. They are small and draw our attention down. They direct you to answers instead of leading you to wonder about things. There’s no wondering when you have Google on your phone.
Leviton: Earlier you mentioned “moral beauty,” which you also talk about in Awe as one of the “eight wonders of life.” Why do you find it so compelling?
Keltner: That’s going to be the subject of my next book, I hope. Those results from our worldwide study really surprised and moved me. We collected a hundred stories of awe in each of twenty-six countries, then coded them for analysis, and human goodness was the most common source of awe mentioned. Not nature, nor spiritual practice, nor the experience of great art. It was examples of exceptional virtue, character, and courage, marked by a purity of intention and action, that brought the most awe. That’s moral beauty — when we are kind and share resources, like a child who gives a flower to a friend, or when we risk our lives or safety to help others, like a whistleblower who challenges an institution at the risk of being fired or going to jail. We heard stories of overcoming obstacles, like being born with a difficult physical condition but becoming a dancer or athlete in spite of it. There were stories of being inspired by another person’s wisdom and imagination.
Leviton: Looking at a beautiful mountain peak is awesome, but it doesn’t create the same sense of optimism about the future that an act of human kindness can bring.
Keltner: That sense of agency, of empowerment, demonstrates what we can accomplish. This hasn’t been studied enough. There’s one study showing moral beauty activates a different region of the brain than natural beauty, but that’s about it. With more research we may come to understand how aesthetic beauty is different from moral beauty, and why the latter might make us more active, more altruistic.
I was speaking in London one time and saw someone act kindly, and we made eye contact in a way that made us both start crying. Moral beauty is moving. It’s where we find our collective sense of morality. It’s a mystery we are still learning to understand.