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Friday, January 6, 2023

Is awe the defining human passion?

Is awe the defining human passion?

Marc Lloyd writes: If the chief end of human beings is to 'glorify God and enjoy him for ever' (from the Westminster Shorter Catechism), it should come as no surprise if modern science finds us to be hard-wired for awe. This is indeed the claim in Awe: The Transformative Power of Everyday Wonder by Dacher Keltner (Allen Lane/Penguin, 2023).

Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. He has long studied the emotions and was a consultant on Pixar’s Inside Out movie. He focuses on teaching happiness and The Good Life, and has come to see seeking awe as key. 

In this study, Keltner seeks to consider awe scientifically, culturally and personally, particularly reflecting on the death of his brother. There are forty pages of end notes but they are not flagged in the main text. The book describes numerous scientific studies, many of which yield stories of awe. Sometimes you might feel the net has been cast rather widely or we have wandered from awe itself a little. I wasn’t bored, but neither did I think every section necessary. The book is less of a practical 'how to' guide than I expected. 

The Presence of the Transcendent

Awe is defined as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.” (7) Typically it is evoked by what Keltner calls “the eight wonders of life”: the moral beauty of others (their courage, kindness, strength or overcoming); collective effervescence (which Durkheim saw as the emotional core of religion, especially as expressed in collective movement e.g. in ritual dance or ceremony); nature; music; visual design; the spiritual or religious; birth and death; and epiphanies (pp 11-17).

Keltner recognises the etymological and historical connections between awe and the awful (p 19) but he tends to distinguish awe from fear, whilst recognising that some theologies and cultures may connect them more closely than the modern West. The biblical God evokes both awe and fear, for example. 

Typically we feel awe two or three times a week. Just a couple of minutes of awe a day can make us happier and healthier. Awe tends to make us more humble and self-forgetful, less neurotic, controlling and competitive, more open to new ideas and experiences, kinder, more generous. Keltner sees an evolutionary value to awe in promoting community and cooperation. There is a whole chapter on evolution as well as numerous other mentions of Darwin and his theory but creationists could ignore all this without losing much of the value of the book.

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