New research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology provides evidence that experiencing awe can help to invigorate the pursuit of one’s authentic self.
Awe is an emotion often elicited by experiences of vastness. This can take the form of physical vastness, such as gazing at the stars on a clear night or standing at the edge of a vast body of water. It can also take the form of conceptual vastness, such as when we contemplate the vastness of time or space. In either case, awestruck individuals report feeling small and insignificant in the face of something much larger than themselves.
This sense of vastness can be overwhelming or even unpleasant, but it is also often accompanied by a sense of wonder and elation. The authors of the new research posited that the experience of awe provides an opportunity to re-assess one’s value as a person, and might motivate people to act in accordance with what they perceive to be their true or genuine self
“When I look up at the Milky way, I feel awe, and I feel like I want to be my true self, to pursue what is really important to me. This intuition propels me to do this project,” explained study author Tonglin Jiang, an assistant professor at Peking University in Beijing,
In a series of 14 studies, which included 4,438 participants in total, the researchers found that awe was linked to authentic-self pursuit. The studies included a mix of correlational and experimental designs, and a mix of laboratory and field experiments.
More specifically, those who agreed with statements such as “I feel wonder almost everyday” and “I often feel awe” tended to be more motivated to pursue their goals, aspirations, and values. Providing experimental support for their hypothesis, the researchers also found that participants who were shown awe-inducing scenes (e.g., the Milky Way above Mountain Fiji) and were asked to recall an experience when they perceived vastness were more motivated to pursue their authentic self compared to those in the control group.
The new studies also provided evidence that a psychological construct known as self transcendence plays a key role in the link between awe and authentic-self pursuit. Self transcendence “refers to the process of expanding, or reaching beyond one’s self-boundary” and is associated with “an increase in feelings of connectedness with a larger context,” the researchers explained. People high in self transcendence agree with statements such as “I can move beyond the things that once seemed so important.”
The findings have some practical implications for everyday life.
“I think it suggests that when you feel confused, meaningless, or losing direction, you could look up into the sky, or commune with nature,” Jiang told PsyPost. “The awe feelings induced by them would liberate you from your daily triviality and help you find your inner compass.”
Self transcendence mediated the effects of awe on authentic-self pursuit among samples of participants from both the United States and China (but the effect was larger among Chinese participants). The researchers also demonstrated that the effects were independent of pride and happiness.
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“There might be individual differences,” Jiang explained. “People differ in trait authenticity, the perception that knowing and acting oneself in alignment with their true or genuine self. People with low trait authenticity might benefit more from awe. In our recent work, we found awe increases the sense of meaning in life via authentic self-pursuit, which is more pronounced for people low in trait authenticity.”
The study, “Awe Motivates Authentic-Self Pursuit via Self-Transcendence: Implications for Prosociality“, was authored by Tonglin Jiang and Constantine Sedikides.