“Awesome” has become a common descriptor, yet genuine awe is a profound emotion: the intake of breath at a starry night sky, goose bumps during soaring music or tearing up at the sight of a vast crowd holding candles aloft. Can this feeling make us better people? A recent paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that it does.

Philosophers long ago suggested that awe binds people together, explains lead author Paul Piff, an assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine, who began his investigation of awe in Dacher Keltner's lab at the University of California, Berkeley. This new research, he says, proves that awe can make people less self-involved and more attuned to the needs of the larger group.

In the first of five studies, the researchers ascertained, through a representative national survey, that people who report feeling awe more often are, in fact, more generous. When given raffle tickets and offered the chance to donate some, those who frequently felt awe gave away more tickets.

Then the researchers conducted four other experiments in which they induced awe in some participants and other emotions such as pride or amusement in others. They evoked awe through videos of breathtaking natural scenes and by taking subjects outside to gaze upward at towering eucalyptus trees.

In every case, those who experienced awe behaved in what psychologists call a more “prosocial” way, being more helpful or making more ethical decisions. The participants who had gazed up at the trees, for example, picked up more pens that were “accidentally” dropped by an undercover researcher than other subjects outside who had gazed at a building.

By making us feel like a small part of something grander, the authors suggest, awe shifts our attention from our own needs to those of the greater good. Some researchers have speculated that awe might have evolved as the response to a powerful leader. Maintaining social hierarchies and ensuring membership in a group can boost odds of survival.

Not surprisingly, some studies suggest that awe can increase religiosity. “I'd guess,” Piff says, “that religion is one of those cultural institutions that ritualizes awe through architecture and music.”

Piff suggests that people try keeping an “awe diary” for two weeks and every day soak up whatever evokes it—a sunset, a bird's feathers. Shifting your focus toward something vast is bound to put your problems in perspective, he observes, and open you to the greater world.