Transcending the Self

Source: Trevor Fenwick, Pixabay Creative Commons

Generally, emotions are about the self. They offer us a powerful and immediate assessment of our current state, objectives and wellbeing, and in so doing, guide our subsequent behaviour and future decisions. In a time where the self reigns supreme (think selfie, self-belief, self-confidence, self esteem, self-truth, and the most dominant, self-love), positive, uplifting feelings like happiness that help us to feel good about ourselves are championed in mainstream Western culture and social media.

It is incontestable that the pursuit of happiness, and the search for the good life (also known as eudaimonia) is noble and meaningful. It is healthy to seek joy, celebrate personal wellbeing and look for fulfilment in the flux of everyday life. 

However, what if we began to actively seek out and celebrate emotional experiences that move beyond a fixation with self to reinforce our connectedness to other human beings, and the wider planet? What if there were certain emotions that gave us a distinctive and deeper flavour of self-love, because they encouraged us to feel unity with others and wonder for the greater cosmos? Self-love could then, perhaps be reconciled with love for humanity, and love for the earth: an altogether more holistic experience of love.

We need to nourish our emotional landscapes with a broader spectrum of emotions that shift us beyond the self, into a state of interconnectedness. Notably, awe has been identified as one of the rare emotional states (along with gratitude, compassion, elevation and inspiration) which transcends the self. 

In the coming years, as we face far-reaching, inevitable environmental and humanitarian challenges, self-transcendence will be more significant and necessary than ever before. Emotions, long seen by some as irrational or inconsequential, actually lead to tangible outcomes in the sense they propel our decisions and subsequent actions. Harnessing the transformational potential of awe and other self-transcending emotions could radically change how we interact with each other and the world around us.

How awe transcends the self

Awe is one of the very rare emotions that turn our minds outwards, rather than inwards. On experiencing awe, we are encouraged to transcend the boundaries of the individual self. Our attention is drawn outside ourselves to wonder at phenomena in the natural world, the noble actions of others, or the genius of creativity. We are thus invited to re-assess our daily concerns and ingrained expectations of life.

Here are some of the compelling ways in which awe provokes self-transcendence:

  • Increased awareness of the present moment

A 2012 study discovered that awe-inducing experiences exert an influence on our perceptions of time. Participants who experienced awe in a laboratory setting perceived time as “slowed down”, expansive and plentiful, with an enhanced awareness of the present moment. Their changed perceptions of time were in fact similar to the effects felt by individuals who regularly practise mindfulness

This altered understanding of the nature of time carries diverse pro-social outcomes, leading to a preference for experiences over material or consumer goods, increased life satisfaction, and an increased willingness to volunteer time.

  • Increased willingness to volunteer time

Following the above experience of awe in a laboratory,  participants in the study also demonstrated an increased propensity to volunteer their time to help others. Participants were noted to be more patient after experiencing awe, highly relevant in a time-poor society where contributing time to help others or undertake charity work is often difficult.

Research conducted by Piff et al. tested the hypothesis that awe leads to pro-social behaviour by diminishing the importance of the individual self. The researchers carried out tests in a laboratory setting where experiences of awe predicted greater generosity in a game than the experience of other emotions such as compassion. The more awe experienced by the participant, the more generous their behaviour.

Piff et al. also conducted follow-up experiments that proved that the experience of awe not only results in increased generosity, but in more ethical decision-making. Participants were presented with different hypothetical scenarios, each describing a different self-interested act, such as being given $20 in change rather than $10 after purchasing a coffee and muffin. Those who had experienced awe were noted as more likely to behave ethically.

This outcome can be explained by simultaneous feelings of being a “small self” that is also part of something greater and more significant. Piff reflected, “Might awe cause people to become more invested in the greater good, giving more to charity, volunteering to help others, or doing more to lessen their impact on the environment?”

  • A sense of being enfolded into collectivity

Further research shows that another consequence of the “diminished sense of self’ borne of awe is an enhanced awareness of being part of something infinitely larger and more universal. Shiota et al. report that compared to those asked to re-live a moment where they felt personal pride, those asked to live an awe-inspiring moment shared significantly more pronounced feelings of love, connectedness to the world around them, rapture, contentment, awareness of something greater than the self, a lack of awareness of everyday concerns, and a desire to prolong the emotional state for as long as possible.

Awe affects perceptions of self: for example, those who have experienced awe are more prone to describe themselves in universal terms rather than specific terms: I am a living being,  or I am a human. It also impacts on feelings of “oneness” with others, and with reality in general: one study discovered that exposure to awe-inspiring videos on nature and childbirth resulted in an increase in spirituality, and an enhanced tendency to see oneself as part of a larger transcendent reality.

Awe thus provokes cognitive and behavioral shifts towards greater collaboration and co-operation, which encourage the integration of individuals into collective folds. 

Ways to experience more awe

Ultimately, awe can help render us more aware that we are part of a vast and meaningful reality. The pro-social, and pro-planetary benefits of awe are undeniable. So how do we get more of this emotion in our everyday lives?

Helpfully, awe is present not only in breathtaking natural landscapes or works of art, but also in the minutiae of everyday life. We simply need to open ourselves up more to it. Consider:

  • Stargazing
  • Taking in a view from somewhere elevated
  • Disengaging from your device and allowing yourself to be present as you move through your day: notice seasonal changes, cloud patterns, the sound of laughter, intoxicating smells
  • Getting amongst nature in some form every day—the natural world is one of the richest sources of awe available
  • Spending time with children—their sense of wonder towards the world around them is infectious
  • Visiting places that are repositories of awe: museums, art galleries, zoos, historical sites, places of worship, concert halls
  • Waking up early, watch the sun rise
  • Listening to awe-inspiring music: Bach, Rachmaninov, Beethoven
  • Using media to engage with awe: for example, documentaries with incredible footage of the natural world, space, or the achievements of other human beings.

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