What A Wonderful World

“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.”
~ John Milton

“He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”
~ Albert Einstein

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
~ W.B. Yeats

aweSomewhere at the intersection of joy, fear, mystery, and insight lies awe, that ineffable response to the amazing world around us. Only recently have scientists taken a look at the sensation; and why it may be key to a more fulfilling life.

Heidi Hammel is paid to gaze at the cosmos. As a senior research scientist for the Space Science Institute, she knows more about the outer planets of our solar system than most people know about what’s in their junk drawers.

Years ago Hammel led the team that was controlling the Hubble Space Telescope when a comet hit Jupiter; it was the first time astronomers watched as two solar system bodies collided.

“I could see these massive dark spots that were literally the size of Earth,” Hammel, 50, says, “and I thought, That’s it! There’s the impact.

Still, the wonder of it all didn’t hit her until she stepped out for a bite to eat. “I ran into an amateur astronomer who had a small telescope set up on the sidewalk,” says Hammel. “I looked through the lens at Jupiter, and I saw the explosions. Something was happening 500 million miles away and I was staring at it on a street corner in Baltimore. I got a hitch in my chest. I was just amazed.”

Actually, she was awed. Overwhelming, surprising, humbling, even a little terrifying, awe is what we feel when faced with something sublime, exceptional, or altogether beyond comprehension.

And as emotions go, it’s among the least understood and most difficult to study. How can science measure the feeling of peering over the Grand Canyon, or holding your newborn for the first time?

Dacher Keltner, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, devotes much of his research to studying awe. In his 2009 book, Born to Be Good, he looks at the emotions beyond the “big six” (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise), believing that more nuanced sensations: compassion, forgiveness, humility, and awe, are what push us beyond self-interest and “wire us for good.”

Cultivating awe, he says, is part of unlocking the truest sense of life’s purpose.

“With awe, it’s not, ‘Wow, that’s a really tall dinosaur,'” he says. “It’s, ‘Wow, there’s something bigger than me.'” And the feeling can become a spur to action; Keltner cites the example of John Muir, the naturalist whose transcendent experiences in the outdoors inspired him to create the Sierra Club.

Scientists say it pays to cultivate more wonder in your life, whether by forwarding heart-swelling news stories or hiking the Grand Canyon.awe2

Now it’s your turn. When was the last time you experienced awe? Opportunities are all around us every day if we just slow down from our busy routines and look. I encourage you to try this for yourself.

Just recently I noticed a beautiful rainbow while driving home from my office and I pulled over in a residential area to take a longer look. I’m so glad I did. As I sat there staring, then smiling, all I could think was, “what an amazing, beautiful, wonderful universe.” Amen.

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