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Whether it’s UFOs or Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, we’re hearing a lot about space travel these days. But they seem to gloss over one thing: a lot about spaceflight sucks.
Send me an angry email if you like but it’s undeniable. Being isolated in an unimaginably cramped living space, weird physiological changes in your body, and the ever-present possibility that something can go wrong in a very unearthly way, space travel is far from comfortable. (The crew on Skylab IV couldn’t even have granular salt because in zero gravity it was deemed to be “air pollution.”)
I’m not saying it wouldn’t be worth it to go to space — it certainly would be — but probably not for the reason you expect…
Researchers have found that spaceflight actually promotes psychological growth. And not in some small way either. Many astronauts describe it as nothing less than a religious awakening. What provokes such a strong reaction?
If you listen to astronauts, seeing Earth from space is like a therapy breakthrough during an LSD trip while having a Road to Damascus moment. Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell described it as “an explosion of awareness” and an “overwhelming sense of oneness and connectedness… accompanied by an ecstasy… an epiphany.”
Chinese Space Program astronaut Yang Liu said:
I had another feeling, that the earth is like a vibrant living thing. The vessels we’ve clearly seen on it looked like the blood and veins of human beings. I said to myself: this is the place we live, it’s really magical.
More than 13 astronauts have reported something like this. In fact, reactions like that are so common researchers gave them a name: “The Overview Effect.” First identified by Frank White, it’s a set of “truly transformative experiences involving senses of wonder and awe, unity with nature, transcendence and universal brotherhood.”
It’s a brain orgasm. Incomprehensible and sublime. Transcendent — yet unifying. Cosmonaut Boris Volynov said:
During a space flight, the psyche of each astronaut is re-shaped; having seen the sun, the stars and our planet, you become more full of life, softer. You begin to look at all living things with greater trepidation and you begin to be more kind and patient with the people around you.
And here’s the best part: something akin to this is not out of reach for you and me. And you don’t even need an interstellar plane ticket. Because “The Overview Effect” is just another version of something we have all felt:
The word “awesome” gets thrown around a lot these days but we’re talking about real awe. The moments that make your heart race, your hair stand on end and literally take your breath away. When we’re at the precipice of unbounded delight, speechless and dumbstruck in appreciative wonder. Those uncanny things that make you gasp, like the Grand Canyon, the Taj Mahal or your spouse actually apologizing. You try and describe the feeling in words but it comes out like Charlie Brown’s teacher talking. Studies show that second only to feeling cold, awe is the most common cause of goosebumps.
And the research says awe has some very positive effects on our lives.
Awe-inspiring experiences can make us happier, help us to feel more connected to others, and lead us to act with greater kindness. Moments of awe can boost our mood, improve our work performance, reduce the stress response in our body, and even decrease cellular inflammation… Awe can make us more creative, less stressed, more curious, and even physically healthier.
A study by Dacher Keltner showed awe had one of the most powerful effects in any study ever done in science: it made college students put their phones down.
Am I overstepping by saying we could all use a little more of this? Studies show we experience awe roughly twice a week — but that’s just not enough. We spend too much of our lives staring at screens, sitting in traffic or lost in worry.
Without awe, life becomes predictable and gray. Hundreds of flavors, but every one of them is vanilla. You could call it a “conflict of interest” because there seems to be so much to be uninterested in. This is deadening. You’d have to carbon date your soul to see how far back the cynicism goes. But we accept it as the rent humans pay to modern life. Last year we wondered if the COVID bartender was yelling “Last Call” to humanity but that wasn’t enough to snap us out of it.
But awe can help us get unstuck, to go from languishing to invigorating. Simply put: we need more goosebumps.
In the quest for more awe, we’ll take a lesson from NASA: “Failure is not an option.” With some help from the book “Awestruck” and a few great studies on the subject, we’re gonna experience awe’s emotional reboot and feel like those astronauts did — to vibrate with the ferocious soul-splitting joy of life.
Ready to feel awesome – really awesome? Let’s get to it…
Awe isn’t just a different kind of happiness. In Keltner and Haidt’s first big study of it they determined awe was a whole different emotion. Previously, psychologists said there were only six emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust. But awe is so powerful and so unique it qualifies as number seven.
All emotions have an evolutionary purpose. Fear is very useful because of its wonderful “not-getting-eaten-by-bears” effect. But what the heck is awe good for? What’s its function?
Bringing us together. Awe is the “ultimate collective emotion.” It smacks us back to our factory settings of togetherness.
In one study, participants were monitored using an fMRI scanner and were shown images designed to elicit a feeling of awe. Unlike many other positive emotions that activate pleasure-focused parts of our brain, awe appeared to activate regions associated with interpersonal bonding and the release of oxytocin, a hormone linked to feelings of warmth, closeness, and connection with others.
Awe makes us feel small – but not diminished. We are tiny, but part of a greater whole. Slap me if I’m getting too sentimental but we blend and become symphonic with all of humanity. And this feeling has real effects on behavior.
In studies, awe makes people less selfish and more focused on the needs of the group. We become more generous. Writing about awe made people more patient and more likely to donate money or time to a good cause. UC Berkeley psychologist Paul Piff said, “Awe arouses altruism.”
And we need this feeling as we age. Children’s brains are alive with connections but post-adolescence a lot of those pathways – and that vibrance – get pruned. We go from wonder to wither. Our beliefs congeal and harden. Our consciousness gets narrow. The day-to-day becomes teeth-achingly banal and we fail to dream. Without a bit of breathtaking wonder, you lose things. Like your soul.
But that’s what makes awe so special. Awe isn’t just exciting; it also breaks our frame of reference. Studies show it creates a need for “cognitive accommodation.” We have to rethink things. It breaks us out of the everyday and makes us reconsider the boxes we put everything in. Awe moves the furniture in your mind. It doesn’t provide closure, it provides, uh… “open-ture.”
Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University, has done studies showing awe reduces activity in the default mode network of your brain. You know what else does that? Religious experiences and LSD. Awe is a spiritual reset button.
Wait a second… Did I just say we need awe to feel like kids again and then compare awe to LSD? Yeah. Leading developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik says there is a lot of overlap between the wonder and joy of children’s minds and psychedelic experiences. In fact, as she told Michael Pollan: “The short summary is, babies and children are basically tripping all the time.”
We want to feel closer to others. And we want to feel the shiver of delight and amazement that kids get when they see something new and scream, “COOL!” That’s why we need more awe.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Spiritual growth, childlike wonder and connection to others? SOLD. How do we get some? I don’t know about you but my space shuttle is in the shop, so where do we find some of this awesome awe?
Mother nature is a one-stop-shop for awe. Doesn’t take a PhD to tell you that white water rafting, mountain climbing, and national parks contain plenty of awesomeness. But those aren’t things we can easily incorporate into our everyday lives. So let’s try something that’s more of a microadventure…
Go for an “awe walk.” Heading to a park, strolling around the woods or even taking in a sunset can all provide you with your USRDA of wow.
Tune in to your senses. Listen to the birds – or to the silence. Smell the not-smog. Feel the wind against your skin. Slow down. Linger on whatever grabs your attention. And savor those feelings.
Urban environments are not without potential for awe. Look up at the sky and the clouds. Skyscrapers? Pretty awesome. And an awe walk doesn’t have to be some special thing. Just notice the impressive stuff around you on the walks you already take. (Yes, I am the first person ever to say that walking to Starbucks can be a spiritual experience.)
Heck, if all else fails you don’t even have to get off the couch. Mother nature is available in 4K UHD in your living room. Check out “Blue Planet” or “Planet Earth” or “Baraka.”
Throw some jaw-dropping waterfall images on your screensaver and the office can be a little more awesome too.
(To learn the #1 ritual you need to do every day, click here.)
Nature is an awe cheat code but the truth is, you don’t even need to change your context to feel awe. As Marcel Proust wrote: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
It’s not what you look at; it’s how you look at it. When it comes to awe, you might think your smartphone is the enemy but it doesn’t have to be.
Think about that device for a second. You know how crazy powerful it is? Forget the Great Pyramid of Giza, that iPhone is like something out of Ray Bradbury. To anyone living before the 21st century, it is nothing less than a slab of pure magic. Take a second to marvel at what it can do. Every piece of information ever collected by humankind is at your fingertips.
Or just consider what you’re doing right now. No, I don’t mean reading this post. Right now you’re moving at a thousand miles an hour on a rock flying around the sun surrounded by 400 billion stars in the Milky Way. Your heart beats 100,000 times per day. In the last second your body just produced 20 million new cells. Whoa.
Awe exists in the smallest things if you merely get curious and appreciate them. So look around. Play “Where’s Waldo?” but for awe. You can feel like a kid again and you don’t even have to sing the songs from “Frozen.”
(To learn how to be happier without really trying, click here.)
Don’t forget — awe is the “ultimate collective emotion.” So you know where else we can find it? Yup…
Look at the average YouTube comments section and you may not think humans are all that awesome. If you’re not careful, all the little annoying things people do can coagulate into a coral reef of disgust in your mind. But humans are pretty amazing if you look hard enough.
Think about the great things we’ve accomplished. Fire up YouTube and watch some highlight reels from the Olympics. Your eyes will go wide like a silent movie actor at the mind-scorchingly impressive things athletes can do.
Or read a biography of a courageous, inspiring person. The lives of the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and Nelson Mandela will make you buckle at the knees.
For bonus points you can even do this thing called “leaving the house.” (It’s so much better if awe overwhelms you in person that way you don’t accidentally close the tab on your awe.) Go to a museum with friends. Let awe work its magic of bringing us together.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Stargazing, immense redwoods and Olympic gold are great – but you can also find plenty of awe inside your own life if you just look…
How good does it feel when the power comes back on after an outage? Exactly. Sometimes it seems like the only thing truly infinite is our ability to take stuff for granted.
Take a minute to think about all the good things in your life that did not have to happen. How many have it worse than you around the world? Or throughout history?
Are you in the hospital right now? In prison? Wondering where your next meal is coming from? Are you utterly without anyone who cares about you? Are you in the 19th century, ill and wishing someone would get around to inventing penicillin?
Think about all the bad things that could have happened to you – but didn’t. How many news stories do you read saying, “Thank god that’s not me”? Add all these up and you’ll realize that your current situation of pretty-darn-good was statistically unlikely in the big picture. It did not have to go this way. Playing the odds, it should not have gone this way. But it did.
Take a second. Wow. Few people have it this good. You have so much to be grateful for.
It’s awesome how lucky you’ve been.
(To learn how to use gratitude to make you happier, click here.)
Okay, let’s round it all up — and get a bit of awe right here, right now…
This is the lazy way to an awesome life:
When we’re young, the world is so new that awe is cheap and plentiful. It’s 90% off in the closeout aisle of life. As we age, awe can feel a lot harder to come by. However, the fault, my friend, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
Look around with new eyes and you’ll see a world that you cannot help but fall in love with. Awe is still all around you, waiting to be discovered. It only takes a little bit of perspective for life to go from “awful” to “awe-full.” (And if you’re staring down the barrel of a midlife crisis, awe is a lot cheaper than buying a Porsche.)
I am awed by the things I write about – that’s why I spend an indefensible amount of time writing about them. Awe makes us see the world as children do and every post I write is just a five-year-old me shouting, “LOOK WHAT I FOUND IN THE BACKYARD! ISN’T IT COOL?!”
More than that, I am awed that so many people pay attention to what I write. But that’s what awe is for, to bring us together. And so I’ve included a little bit of pre-packaged awe for you in this post, right here. Did you miss it?
It’s the image at the top of the post. Not the usual funny-ha-ha-joke I put there. That photo is “Earthrise.” It was taken by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders in 1968. It’s the Earth, seen from lunar orbit. Have a glass of Tang and indulge yourself in a touch of “The Overview Effect.”
8 billion of us on that tiny blue marble in the vast, limitless universe. Every human who is alive, every human who has ever lived, has been on that pale blue dot. It is all we know, it is all we have ever known. Unfathomably immense to us day-to-day but miniscule in the big picture. It hangs there, fragile. But it is teeming with life, energy and hope. Just like we are if we’re doing this life thing right.
(Is that a goosebump? I think I feel a goosebump… Yup, goosebump.)
Sometimes we feel small. But that’s not bad. Through the perspective of awe, it just means we are a part of something much much greater. Something awesome.
As Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
Stop waiting for miracles. They are already here, all around us. Just waiting for you to notice them.
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