Woah! The Surprising Science Of Awe (No Rainbow Required)

November 19th, 2021
Woah! The Surprising Science Of Awe (No Rainbow Required)

You know it when it hits. You wake up on your river cruise down the Nile, and look out of the window, and there, right there, is one of the Pyramids aglow with morning sunlight. Or you step onto the deck of a ship working its way through the fjords of Norway, and the scale of everything around you strikes you dumb with wonder. Or maybe it’s the colour of the water in the Greek islands, something you’ve only ever seen in photos, but it’s right here

Felucca Nile Cruise

Felucca Nile Cruise

Or maybe it’s something you never expected. That’s how it works too. You never knew you could experience this, and that’s why it’s so intense.

This is awe - and while the scientific study of it is new, it’s been a prime motivator in the travel plans of millions of people for centuries. For many, it’s why they travel, to seek out those moments that transcend normal fascination, joy and wonderment and take you to a higher level that feels almost indescribably meaningful to you. You won’t have the words at the time. You might spend years, or even the rest of your life, hunting for them. 

Awe is very real, and while travel is a powerful trigger for it, it can strike you anywhere if the circumstances are right. That’s the enduring lesson of the modern world’s most famous awe-catcher, whose legacy is one of the most popular non-music YouTube videos of all time. 

In May of last year, the Modesto Bee (Stanislaus County, California) ran an obituary of a much-loved local resident, Mr. P. Vasquez. After a few years of ill health, he’d recently been showing symptoms of pneumonia and was admitted to hospital, where he passed a few days later.

Another obituary noted his love of the mountains, his fondness for helping people (including the local Miwok, whose traditions are currently under threat) and that he was “survived by his two children.”

Yosemite

Yosemite

Mr Vasquez lived a low-key but colourful life: born in East Los Angeles, he worked in a lot of trades (including firefighting, truck-driving and working security), and eventually bought a plot of land around 10 miles from Yosemite, which he turned into a farm. He got married, he got divorced, he grew his own food - and he went for a lot of walks on the hills above Yosemite Valley…

  1. I’m working really hard here to hold his true identity back from you, including the nickname you probably already know him by. I’ll be shocked if you haven’t experienced a moment of pure joy (and hilarity) through his most famous piece of work.

That second obituary, by the way? It was in the New Yorker.

For the sheer joy of reliving it, let’s pretend you don’t know the following story. One day in early January 2010, Paul Vasquez stepped out of his house and into his back yard, and saw…a double rainbow.

“Woah, that’s a full rainbow, all the way. A double rainbow - oh my god! It’s a double rainbow, all the way. Woah…that’s so intense.”

He moves away from the trees surrounding his property until he can see the whole valley- and then he experiences something that makes life worth living: a moment of pure, overwhelming, joy-overloaded awe.

I mean, it’s also hilarious. If you’re not laughing, you’ve clicked the wrong link. The moment where he whispers “What does this mean?” is comedy gold - as is the remix song someone else made from it.

But it’s also something to admire and learn from. Who doesn’t want to be open to feeling something like that?

For all the “LOL, how much drugs was he on? All of them?” comments flying around, I bet a lot of those 50 million views were powered by wishful envy. He just sounds so ridiculously happy. What’s his secret? How many times a week does he feel like that? Has he discovered how to live a literally awesome life? If the internet has a Patron Saint of Awe, his name might be Paul “Bear” Vasquez.

double rainbow

double rainbow

(Rest in peace, sir. I hope you’ve found out what it all means.)

As I said, the science of awe is a pretty recent thing. I first learned about it via writer Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix and countless articles on finding it in the Great Outdoors. UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center released this fascinating white paper on it in 2018, summarising the recent research.

It’s an exciting new branch of the study of human experience. And it matters. If you want confirmation of this, watch the Double Rainbow video from end to end, all 3 minutes and 29 seconds of it, and tell me you don’t feel better afterwards. And if it’s ever struck you on your travels - well, you’re already sold. It’s why you’re already planning your next adventure.

Berkeley’s research suggests that experiencing awe has the following beneficial effects on us:

  • increased feelings of humbling self-diminishment (nicknamed “the small self”), where you realise how relatively unimportant and temporary your struggles are compared to other things
  • a deeper sense of connection to the people and places around you
  • an increased capacity for critical thinking and healthy skepticism
  • a more positive outlook on life
  • a decreased concern with materialism, ie. Stuff.

So should we all immediately go chasing rainbows?

Maybe! But what catapulted Mr Double Rainbow into paroxysms of joy might not trigger the same thing in others. You can certainly increase your chances of stumbling across are (see below). But it’s also notoriously difficult to engineer

Like serendipity, awe is unpredictable. It’s your thing, and you find it in your own way. You usually stumble across it, and stand transfixed while the people you’re with, experiencing the exact same situation, are all What’s up, are you OK? What’s the big deal?

Awe

Awe

As Paul Vasquez proved, it can even hit you in your own backyard. It’s not always a “travel to distant lands” thing (although that certainly helps, as any traveller will confirm). You can find it anywhere - and also practice the skill of being more receptive to the conditions that create it.

Here are three things that have served me (and countless other awe-seekers) very well down the years.

  • Go somewhere entirely new, or go do something entirely new. The novelty is the thing, and it’ll sharpen your senses. If you’re currently waiting to travel - where nearby, in your current corner of the world, have you never been to? Do you know where you’ve never been? When was the last time you scanned a local map for new places to explore, or read the local news in search of new pastimes to try out?

  1. Start a journal. Awe comes from a moment of unusual attentional clarity - so paying attention is the skill you should be working on. Writing is a great way to do that: it forces you to put something into words, to try to understand in a way that can be described, and thereby to learn it in a way that can be “taught” into your journal. (This is a form of the so-called Protege Effect, one of the best ways to learn anything.)
     
  2. Put your expectations on the backburner. Open yourself to the unexpected and serendipitous and stay loose enough for surprise to work its magic on you. Don’t try to force it to show up, or develop an expectation that it will. You’re dealing with the Northern Lights of the soul here - the best you can do is to get out there as often as you can, and wait for the right conditions for magic to strike. That’s how it works - and maybe that’s why it works. It’s special because it doesn’t just happen every day. So stay patient, keep your eyes and ears open, and just go see what happens.

Good luck!

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