Finding meaning through work and experiencing awe for wellbeing
I think about wellbeing and finding meaningful work a lot. And when I say work, I mean it in the broadest sense. You might call it vocation, your calling, your purpose or even how you feel like you are best contributing to the world. You might also think of it on a purely financial exchange. How we think about our work and how we spend our time matters individually and collectively. For me, I started my career path wanting to be a contemporary dancer. I had no plan B, so when I got injured, my part time job became my new career. Working in the field of applied behavioural analysis led me to some incredible places and learnings but I just let things happen. I was led by the curiosity and happenstance rather than my own intuition or by my own design. It wasn’t until I started seeking what I was interested in that my career started feeling self led. It is only now that I feel like I am deliberate choices to be where I am today and consider where I want to go next regularly. Is it my calling? I never describe it that way but I am lucky to find my work meaningful and fulfilling.
However you think about your work, your work matters a lot. We spend so much time at work- about 90,000 hours over a lifetime, that is 1/3 of your life. This is also why I say that our work matters collectively and why we believe in the principles of the wellbeing economy
. The daily spend impacts on your quality of life and our collective businesses impact the world. So what’s awe got to do with it?
Well, in short, it is good for you. Experts say we should consider wonder as an essential emotion to our well-being — just like joy, contentment and love.The science of awe is barely 15 years old, and there are many more questions left to be explored than those that have been answered. Dacher Keltner
is leading the way in the science of awe, defines awe below,
“Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.”
“In his quest to make sense of awe, and convince us of its virtues, Keltner embarks on a journey to find the emotion in a wide range of sources, from mystical texts to conversations with artists. In doing so he shows that the stimuli for awe are remarkably varied, dividing them into eight categories (or “wonders”), including “moral beauty” and “collective effervescence”. Awe often defies language, but Keltner is highly attuned to its traces. Detective-like, he observes his interviewees’ facial expressions and gestures. “When I play, I feel the vibration in my heart,” the cellist Yumi Kendall tells him. “It is beyond language. Beyond thought. Beyond religion. It is like a cashmere blanket of sound.”
In a landmark 2003 paper, psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt
presented a “conceptual approach to awe.” In this paper, Keltner and Haidt suggested that awe experiences can be characterized by two phenomena: “perceived vastness” and a “need for accommodation. ‘Perceived vastness’ can come from observing something literally physically large — the Grand Canyon, for example — or through an encounter with something or someone that is vast or profound, such as being in the presence of someone with immense prestige or being presented with a complex idea like the theory of relativity. An experience which evokes a “need for accommodation” is when it violates our normal understanding of the world. When a stimulus violates expectations in this way, it can provoke a modification of the mental constructs that we use to understand the world. This need for cognitive realignment is an essential part of the awe experience as articulated by Keltner and Haidt. Other studies also suggest that simple act of witnessing the goodness of others.
Although we can experience many different forms of awe, we all crave it. Awe gives that feeling of being connected to something. It fills us with a sense of wonder and mystery of life and according to the John Templeton Foundation’s, The Science of Awe,
Awe experiences are what psychologists call self-transcendent: they shift our attention away from ourselves, make us feel like we are part of something greater than ourselves, change our perception of time, and even make us more generous toward others.
To go even further,
Awe engages five processes—shifts in neurophysiology, a diminished focus on the self, increased prosocial relationality, greater social integration, and a heightened sense of meaning—that benefit well-being.
It doesn’t take much convincing to understand the science and wonder of awe. It is something more and more people are seeking more of; you can see this reflected in the increasing popularity of spending time in nature, collective synchronous movements, psychedelics and other awe inducing experiences. If you are thinking that awe sounds too grand and elusive, think again.
Awe is something you can develop, with practice.
- Pay attention
- Focus on the “moral beauty” of others
- Practice mindfulness. Distraction is an enemy of awe.
- Choose the unfamiliar path. Awe often comes from novelty.
- Be open to new ideas. To what is unknown. To what language can’t describe.
Awe has psychological benefits as well. Many of us have a critical voice in our head, telling us we’re not smart, beautiful or rich enough. Awe seems to quiet this negative self-talk, Dr. Keltner said, by deactivating the default mode network, the part of the cortex involved in how we perceive ourselves. Sharon Salzberg
, a leading mindfulness teacher and author, also sees awe as a vehicle to quiet our inner critic. Awe, she believes, is “the absence of self-preoccupation.” Awe also seems to boost feelings of connectedness, increase critical thinking and skepticism, increase positive mood, and decrease materialism.
This is the point when the body steps, raises its arm and reminds us of its intelligence. Our bodies respond differently when we are experiencing awe than when we are feeling joy, contentment or fear. We make a different sound, show a different facial expression. Dr. Keltner found that awe activates the vagal nerves, clusters of neurons in the spinal cord that regulate various bodily functions, and slows our heart rate, relieves digestion and deepens breathing. A 2021 study reported that feeling more awe is correlated with reporting feeling lowered levels of daily stress. Intriguingly, people who feel more awe also tend to have lower levels of inflammatory cytokines.
While many of us associate awe with dramatic, life-changing events, the truth is that awe can be part of everyday life. It can affirm the vastness and wonder of life and can touch the deepest parts of our humanity. Best of all, you can experience awe by simply witnessing the goodness of others.