What does standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, looking up at the Sistine Chapel, and Katelyn Ohashi’s perfect 10 viral gymnastics floor routine have in common?
They might bring a tear to your eye without you knowing exactly why. In their own way, they are each entrancing and sublime. They all leave you saying “Wow!” a telltale sign of a little-known emotion called awe.
Awe doesn’t have to be rare: the birth of a child is a great example of something that happens worldwide 250 times a minute, but still inspires awe. Neither does awe have to be sparked by the natural world: man-made structures like the Taj Mahal, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Great Wall of China all inspire awe. Awe doesn’t even have to come from something physical: a virtuosic performance, amazing athletic achievement, and of course, religious and spiritual experiences can all be awesome.
Awe is a mysterious, can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it emotion. It’s more complex than the peanut butter and jelly of sad, mad, and glad. If awe were a pizza, it would be loaded with a lot of very different toppings including morality, spirituality, and aesthetics.
But even if awe is hard to describe, like jazz, you know it when you experience it. When awe is particularly strong, we are humbled by its presence and feel graced or fortunate. Awe is transcendent, shifting your attention away from yourself and making you feel part of something larger—humanity, the earth, the universe, or a higher power.