The Awesome Power of Awe

“Well, this is stunning,” my oldest said facetiously, staring into a wall of dense gray clouds. We had finally arrived at the big, dramatic view after a couple of hours of hiking in dense forest in the Smoky Mountains. Except that instead of a sweeping green vista, there were clouds. And we were inside them.

“Isn’t it cool to be in a cloud?” I responded feebly. It was clear to anyone inside the cold, gray pea soup that it wasn’t all that cool. Without acknowledging my attempt to reframe the experience, my youngest asked, “Can we go back now?”

“Back” was a six-mile return hike to our car. We had already burned through nearly all of our gummy bears, word games, and internal motivation to put one foot in front of the other. At this point, I wasn’t sure we would make it back if we tried. “Let’s just give it a minute,” I suggested.

We sat on a rock staring into the gray soup. Twenty seconds passed before my oldest said, “Okay, now can we go?”

“Let’s just head out to the outcropping and see if anything changes,” I responded.

On the way to the outcropping, we met other hikers similarly committed to and equally as ambivalent about the waiting game. Fog-bound, we passed the time making conversation over a persistent stream of kid complaints.

That is, until our voices simultaneously dropped to a whisper. A line of clouds just to our right had suddenly flowed up and over the ridge, revealing a dramatic plunge into the valley below. Two minutes later, layer after layer of ridgelines emerged into clear view.

“Wow,” my youngest whispered, barely audible. Without realizing it, I reached out and squeezed the hand of the stranger next to me. “Wow wow wow,” I whispered.

I don’t know how long we sat on that rock whispering and watching the clouds roll in and out of the dramatic green valleys below. It probably wasn’t long before the pea soup returned and we started the trek back. As we re-entered the forest, my oldest commented, “Did you notice that we all started whispering at the same time when the clouds lifted? That’s so weird.”

My youngest responded, “I think it was because of the wow.”

The Benefits of Awe

Our experience on that mountain ridge was an example of an essential human emotion: awe. It is the feeling we get when we are in the presence of something vast and meaningful that challenges or expands our understanding and appreciation of the world. We often know awe through body sensations — including tingling or buzzing, a welling of tears behind our eyes, lowered voices, vocal “bursts,” or a sudden sensation of expansion, spaciousness, or possibility.

While formal research on awe is still relatively new, it suggests that regular experiences of wonder are essential to our personal and collective well-being. Among other benefits, awe encourages cooperation, inspires global thinking, regulates our nervous systems, and makes us more creative and curious.

Awe works in unique ways against the anxiety and isolation that many children and their adults report experiencing right now.

It is certainly not the solution to all of our problems. But it does offer perspective — something we desperately need in order to generate creative and equitable solutions to our collective challenges.

Awe Is All Around Us

A stunning mountain vista is exactly where we would expect to find awe. That is why we pack the gummy bears, tolerate the discomfort, and walk deep into the forest with our children. We go in search of awe.

But the latest science tells us that we don’t need to pack up to experience this essential emotion. Researchers have translated and coded over 2,600 narratives about experiences of awe from people all over the world. Unsurprisingly, nature, spirituality, and art consistently inspire awe. But the most common source is witnessing the kindness and courage of ordinary people. Dacher Keltner, author of Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life (2023), calls this “moral beauty.”

Second to moral beauty is “collective effervescence.” Experiences like dancing or singing together, seeing art or music, and participating in rallies move and inspire us. Awe reminds us that we aren’t alone.

The more overwhelmed we are, the more we need awe. The good news is that awe is all around us. We just have to look for it:

  • Notice and attend to the “moral beauty” of others. Simply noticing people’s kindness, courage, or strength helps us experience awe. Look for small everyday examples and point them out to kids. Pause and notice how you feel when your kids point them out to you.
  • Take an awe walk. This comes naturally to toddlers, so if you have one, follow their lead. Put your devices away and take a walk that allows you to observe nature, people, public art, and interactions around you with more intention.
  • Choose media with awe in mind. Scrolling mindlessly may not inspire, but evidence shows that intentional media consumption can induce awe. Choose media that depicts moral beauty, stirring storytelling, or the wonders of the natural world.
  • Prioritize art and creativity. Art brings us into relationship with others and invites us to challenge our perspectives. Attend or participate in art experiences. Read poetry, dance, paint, watch, and express yourself.

An Openness to Awe

Prioritizing awe doesn’t mean ignoring challenges, denying negative feelings, or forcing positive reappraisals. Instead, awe-inducing experiences give us the capacity and connectedness we need to do hard things together, not avoid them.

Raising kids in these unsettling times can feel like sitting in a fog. The science of awe invites us to be open to the possibility that clouds shift and lift. It invites us to look up and turn towards each other in our daily lives to see what we can create together. Kids need the wow that we find there. Their caregivers do too.

Erin Walsh (she/her) is a parent, writer, and co-founder of Spark & Stitch Institute. A version of this article originally appeared on her blog.