Holly Richardson: We could all use a little more awe

| Courtesy Holly Richardson, op-ed mug.

This week, the world caught its first-ever glimpse of a black hole, something once thought unseeable. It now has a name: Powehi, a word from an 18th century Hawaiian creation chant. The word means “embellished dark source of unending creation” and was chosen by University of Hawaii-Hilo Professor Larry Kimura.

When one of the key researchers, Dr. Katie Bouman, saw the image of an orange ring of light surrounding, well, a black hole, she reacted with obvious joy — and awe.

Awe, scientists tell us, is an emotion we feel in response to something vast and that does not fit in our existing frame of reference. The vastness can be physical size, like the Grand Canyon, or a black hole, “social size” like fame, or authority and even loud sounds or shaking ground, like in an earthquake. The second component of awe is that we just don’t have the framework to plug those experiences into: seeing your first child born, for example, or watching a flawless Olympic performance that makes you shake your head and wonder how on earth they did that.

Seeing ourselves in the context of a greater whole keeps us humble. We spend less time focusing on ourselves and more time being focused outward. Work by Drs. Jennifer Stellar, Amie Gordon and others finds that feeling awe lessens feelings of entitlement, arrogance and narcissism and make us want to engage with others and feel more connected to others. In their 2018 study on “Awe and Humility,” they also found that feelings of awe led participants to “present a more balanced view of their strengths and weaknesses to others” and “acknowledge, to a greater degree, the contribution of outside forces in their own personal accomplishments.”

Feelings of awe have also been linked with increased volunteerism, a feeling that you have more time in your day, better immune health, decreased symptoms of PTSD and anxiety, increased feelings of general happiness, social wellbeing and satisfaction in life.

So how do we increase our experiences of awe? Well, you could spend years pursuing the elusive black hole. You could have a baby. Or, you could do some things that are considerably easier.

One of the top items consistently named as awe-inducing is simply spending time in nature. Utah has many places where the sounds soften and the awe increases. Studies have consistently found that time in nature lowers heart rate and blood pressure and decreases cortisol, the stress hormone. Think of all the times you see photos of people getting their “Vitamin Sea” at the beach. It really works.

Get out of your comfort zone and out of your normal routine. Visit somewhere you’ve never been. Try something you’ve never done before. Look for new ways of seeing and approaching the world. Ask questions. Be curious.

Disengage from electronics. It’s one thing to see a waterfall on a tiny phone screen. It’s quite another to stand in the spray and hear the cacophony of thousands of gallons of water plummeting off a cliff. Visit a forest and look up. Attend the symphony in person. Watch the sunset. Or the sunrise.

Be inspired. Read a book about someone you admire. Write a book about someone you admire. Capture one awe-inducing event with your camera, or in your journal. Describe it in enough detail that anyone reading it would begin to understand how it felt.

Abraham Maslow described “peak experiences” in 1964. They are those experiences that are “especially joyous and exciting moments in life, involving sudden feelings of intense happiness and well-being, wonder and awe.” In the middle of many mundane experiences, let’s also take a little time for awe.

Holly Richardson, a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune, thinks the black hole picture is awe-inspiring — and looks an awful lot like the Eye of Sauron.