Recent research by a team of Australian psychology professors tested the impact that focusing on the enormity of the universe has on mental health, feeling connected to others, and empathy. Before I get to the results, let me indulge myself with a related story from my youth (thanks!).
I was about 12 years old and sitting in a church pew (in the back) in rural Ohio.The sermon that day wasn’t the usual. Instead of the pastor, it was another man in the church discussing the beauty, magnitude, intricacy and sheer awesomeness of the universe. 12 year old me was in agreement with all of these things. But, 12 year old me also was sort of overwhelmed by it all. In this vast cosmos, where does little old me (or young me in this case) fit in? I mean what significance could my life possibly have?
Fast forward 22 years and I came across a series of new studies testing some of the ideas that I had been pondering for years. Was 12 year old me alone in how he felt in that pew that day?
In two studies, these researchers exposed participants to videos that did or did not focus on the enormity of the universe. Before this, they measured participants self-esteem. And after the videos, they assessed a variety of variables including empathy, mood and and how closely you felt connected to other people.
They found that for people with low trait self-esteem, the enormity of the universe video increased feelings of isolation from other people, increased negative mood and reduced empathy. For people with with high self-esteem, this did not occur.
When looking at these results, I couldn’t help but wonder if the researchers might have found different effects had they focused on anxiety specifically instead of low self-esteem. If I had to guess, I’d predict that people with low self-esteem people would have reduced anxiety when thinking about the enormity of space, but increased sadness. Who needs to stress if your life doesn’t matter all that much to the universe and you feel very small? But on the flip side, that does not seem like a prescription for joy.