Feeling Awe Can Cultivate Humility
In a world that increasingly feeds our selfish inclinations and fuels our proclivity for self-aggrandizement, a renewed interest in humility has emerged. Humility has traditionally been defined as an enduring trait and is a facet within well-established measures of personality (e.g., the HEXACO). There are many benefits to possessing this virtue: more prosociality, greater acceptance from others, and better relationships. Lacking humility often portends arrogance or narcissism. Many of us fall somewhere in between, humble with room for improvement.
The tendency to construe humility as a trait has had one unintended outcome: it obscures the dynamic and malleable nature of humility. For instance, I can feel a moment of intense humility as I look out over the Grand Canyon and am confronted by its sheer size and beauty. Or I may feel a little less humble after receiving a prestigious award. If we acknowledge that humility can change from day-to-day or even moment-to-moment then it raises a fascinating question—what experiences cultivate humility?
This is where the emotion of awe may play a role. Awe is defined as a sense of wonder or amazement that people feel when they encounter something vast or grand that challenges their world view. Across six studies (and another six posted on Open Science Framework, we found that eliciting awe increases momentary feelings of humility. Having people recall a time they felt awe (e.g., going to a museum and seeing beautiful art), watch nature scenes from Planet Earth, and look out over a beautiful landscape outside increased reports of humility and humble behaviors. For example, in one study, we measured how long a person chose to write about their strengths before moving on to their weaknesses over a two-minute period. Those induced to feel awe spent less time listing their strengths before opting to move on to their weaknesses, compared to people in a control condition. In another study, participants reported the extent to which their own accomplishments were due to themselves, other people, or external forces (God or luck). Individuals feeling awe reported a larger portion of their own success was due to other people and external forces, compared to people in a control condition or those feeling another positive emotion (amusement).
These findings suggest that there are ways to cultivate humility in the moment, and that one path may be through experiences of awe. People report feeling awe in all sorts of contexts, from nature, art, music, religious or spiritual experiences, the feats or virtue of other people (e.g., Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa), and even new ideas. So when you are out on a clear evening looking up at the vast expanse of the stars in the night’s sky, maybe it will help bring you a little more down to earth.
Jennifer Stellar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. Her research focuses on how emotions such as compassion, awe, and gratitude (to name a few) promote group functioning by encouraging prosociality and morality and how they contribute to an individual’s well-being and physical health.