Bookworm: You might struggle with ‘Awe,’ you’ll love in the end
It’s sweet and inspiring and comforting
“Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life”
- By Dacher Keltner
- c. 2023, Penguin Press
- $28, 336 pages
Of course, you’ve seen pictures of this. This mountain, this painting, the birth of a child, a singer on-stage, a perfect pirouette – you’ve seen pictures but they don’t come anywhere close to real life, and how stunned you feel with those wonders in front of you. The goosebumps on your arms, the feeling that you’ve never seen anything so striking – as Dacher Keltner says in his new book “Awe,” it’s that feeling of “WHOA.”
The perfect melody, a prayer answered, and man, that view are all so incredibly beautiful that you almost cry. Tears are common, says Keltner, when we see infinite mysteries outside our scope of understanding. That’s when awe, the emotion we feel when we encounter something overwhelmingly wonderful, can make other emotions run wild.
Prior to 1988, he says, we didn’t know much about emotions or how they affect our brains and bodies. It was believed that emotions were the result of the brain processing information, but researchers then didn’t factor passion into the theory until scientists like Keltner began studying emotions and “the emotional brain.” They eventually understood that awe is cultural, but that there are eight general and universal prompts for it.
Awe comes when we see kindness or courage in someone else. We feel it at life’s milestones, like weddings, proms, or graduations. We become awe-struck by the beauty of nature and the things that are in it. We humans feel awe from music and musical performances, and by visual design such as architecture, symmetry, or artistry. We are awed by things of a spiritual or religious nature, including bliss or nirvana; and we’re awed and humbled by the miracle of life and the slipping away of death. And we feel awe when we are granted knowledge or epiphanies, discoveries or realizations or delight.
So why do we feel awe at these things? Says Keltner, it helps us to make sense of the world we live in. It lets us see the wonderful things in life, and to place ourselves within them.
Narrowing down “Awe” is a bit of a challenge. It’s filled with great stories, but it seems very, very repetitive. There’s solid science in what author Dacher Keltner offers, but it’s sometimes hard to grasp and it doesn’t help that there are several definitions for various things that change or are embellished.
And yet, who can resist that feeling like you’ve just witnessed some sort of miracle or cosmic gift, or seen something fleeting and personal? Who doesn’t want more of that? Keltner says that keeping an open mind is key to invite awe into your life and, despite the repetition, the stories he tells and his journey of discovery helps readers will learn how to open their hearts, too. It’s almost as if stories of awe are contagious.
This is one of those books that you know you might struggle with, but that you also know you’ll love in the end. It’s sweet and inspiring and comforting. You might find “Awe” to be awe-fully good.
The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. Read past columns at marconews.com.