How Cultivating Awe Can Save the World
The best-kept but scientifically-validated secret for engendering generosity
This is the last in a series of five pieces about changing the register, which just means engendering the attitudes and behaviors we want to see in ourselves by intervening in the cultural landscape instead of manipulating people. The first three interventions were to Denaturalize Power, Trigger Agency, and Resocialize People. I saved the best one for last.
Our experiences of collectivity engender a state of awe. This is what people are after when they attend a festival, a rave, a concert, or even a museum or natural wonder. It’s not just a fleeting high that we get, but an experience of the dissolution of self and a sense of connection to everything else.
It’s awesome and real. It’s also pro-social and capable of helping us mobilize to achieve collective eudaimonia: an ideal from Aristotelian thought that venerates the liberated condition of universal flourishing.
As scientists are currently learning, an experience of awe makes a person more generous while also regulating cytokines for a more balanced immune response. Cultivating awe means creating opportunities for people to shift from the short-lived pleasure of an online hit (dopamine) to the longer-term social openness of true connection (oxytocin). Awe means experiencing oneself as part of something greater.
Awe opens us to the fuller realization that our individual and collective identities are mutually reinforcing
To the current, individualist mindset, such connection sounds frightening: it seems like a diminishment of one’s individuality and freedom. Awe, intimacy, and group consciousness seem to compromise self-sovereignty and claims to ownership (IP!). In actuality, awe opens us to the fuller realization that our individual and collective identities are mutually reinforcing. Instead of embracing awe, however, the frightened individual panics. We build walls instead of tearing them down.
I discussed the difference between panic and awe at length in my book Present Shock. I tried to show how digital technologies “collapse” narrative, and suggested how…