A modern lifestyle brand redefining motherhood

How Awe Transforms Us – and How to Create More of It for Your Kids

Print Friendly and PDF

This past summer’s Fourth of July fireworks were more spectacular than usual. My four-year-old daughter was seeing them for the first time in her life, and I was blown away by her reaction.


She was laughing, yelling out joyously at each new decoration in the sky, and even shaking in her chair. Witnessing her remarkable response allowed me to view that moment through her young eyes — to turn something ordinary into something extraordinary.   

We sometimes have special moments in life that are so profound we don’t even know how to describe them. Maybe you just spotted a rainbow, watched a video about our expansive universe, or witnessed the birth of your child. The emotion you feel is hard to grasp — an overwhelming mix of wonder, joy, and sometimes even fear.

These moments are so exhilarating that we get goosebumps on our arms, feel tingling up and down our spine, tears flood our eyes, and our jaw drops.

This is called awe. Awe is an emotion that has a powerful effect on our body and mind. It’s a feeling very hard to put into words. David Delgado, a visual strategist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and co-founder of the Museum of Awe who spoke at the Greater Good Science Center’s recent Art and Science of Awe conference, describes awe as an instant when you can’t quite grasp something. “It feels like magic, amazement, mystery, reverence. It’s the moment when we realize it’s a gift and privilege to be alive.”

FEATURED VIDEO

How we feel awe

Awe has been addressed throughout history by the amazing works of great writers and scientists like Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and John Muir. However, researchers have only recently begun to study how awe impacts our well-being.

In a key 2003 paper, “Approaching Awe, A Moral, Spiritual And Aesthetic Emotion,” psychologists Dacher Keltner of University of California, Berkeley (now the director of the Greater Good Science Center) and Jonathan Haidt of New York University presented how awe works and the effects it has on us. They found that awe consists of two core qualities:

  1. Perceived vastness — something we think to be greater than ourselves in number, scope, or complexity,
  2. It challenges or alters our understanding of the world.

Awe allows us to transcend the ordinary, tests our concept of time and scale, gives us the sense of being small in a grand universe, and helps us to truly be in the moment.

Awe can be triggered by different things for different people. It can result from profound beauty; spending time in nature; feeling connected to others; remarkable human accomplishments; scientific discoveries; or great works of architecture, art, and music. According to award-winning cinematographer Louie Schwartzberg who created the Gratitude Revealed film series, “It doesn’t matter what pathway it takes, or what your belief system is, or what the story is. We just want to feel it. What is important is…to be moved.”

How awe transforms us

On average, we feel awe only about two-and-a-half times per week, Dacher Keltner explains. As our culture becomes more self-focused and over-worked, awe provides an amazing tool to instill a deeper sense of worldliness, kindness, and peace in our children. Recent research shows that awe can make us happier and healthier in a number of significant ways.

1 | Broadens social connection

Awe changes our perspective of the world. We feel smaller and as though we are in the presence of something greater than ourselves. A study at the University of California, Berkeley concluded that awe makes us lose our awareness of “self” and feel more connected to the world around us. This helps get rid of dangerous “us versus them” thinking. Additionally, when we witness a remarkable moment, we want to share it with other people, causing us to bond with family, friends, and even strangers.

2 | Stimulates curiosity

When we observe something awesome — like images of Earth from space, a fascinating science experiment, or a talented athlete — we want to learn more about how it’s all possible. Curiosity is so critical to children’s growth and success. Even though their constant questions may be trying at times, it is ultimately what we want them to do so they’re always craving new knowledge. What’s even more incredible is that people who are curious tend to get along better with others.

3 | Expands creativity

Awe inspires us to be more creative because we begin to view the world in a broader sense. This expansive thinking helps us consider new perspectives and see beyond our present situation. In a 2012 study from Tel Aviv University, one group of children was asked to look at a series of photos, starting with basic everyday objects and then shifting to vast or faraway things like the Milky Way galaxy. The other group was shown the same images but in the opposite order. The children who saw the objects from small to expansive performed significantly better on creativity tests.

4 | Leads to kindness and generosity

Paul Piff, assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at University of California, Irvine, has found that “awe boosts a person’s generosity, willingness to help others, willingness to behave in ethical ways, to take on needs of others, and de-prioritize their own needs. Awe connects us to things larger than ourselves and motivates us to care for others and the collective good.”

His experiments prove that when people experience a moment of awe, they tend to be more generous. He had participants first either look up into tall, beautiful trees or at a large building. They then came across a person who needed assistance. Those in the tree group were more apt to help to the person in need.

5 | Changes our perception of time

In our hectic 24/7 lifestyle, don’t you wish we had more time? Awe has been shown to give us the illusion that we do have more time and no longer need to rush. A 2012 Stanford University study published by Psychological Science found that participants who watched awe-inspiring videos featuring whales, waterfalls, and other nature scenes were more likely to report feeling like they had more time.

6 | Guides us to find our purpose in life

Positive psychology researchers have discovered that people who have a clear purpose in life experience less pain and anxiety and are less depressed. By being connected to something larger than ourselves through awe, we are more likely to be inspired and motivated to face new challenges and reach our goals. Research shows that children who grow up with a sense of purpose are typically happier, have a more successful career, and have stronger relationships later in life.

7 | Makes us grateful

Awe gives us a sense of hope and the ability to see the bigger picture. It teaches us that there might be something magical in everyday life that we can be grateful for. Louie Schwartzberg says that, “Awe inspires us to open our hearts and minds to engender gratitude.”

8 | Improves our immune system

Researchers at Berkeley have discovered that awe reduces the level of pro-inflammatory proteins (called cytokines) that cause our immune system to work harder. This is important because high levels of cytokines cause illness. “That awe, wonder, and beauty promote healthier levels of cytokines suggests that the things we do to experience these emotions…has a direct influence upon health and life expectancy,” suggested Dacher Keltner, co-author of the study.

9 | Reduces anxiety and depression

Feelings of awe boost our mood. Our nervous system reacts in the opposite way to awe than anxiety. Instead of the “fight or flight” response kicking in, awe keeps us still and relaxed, benefiting both our body and mind. Additionally, elevated cytokines have been linked to depression. As discussed earlier, awe reduces these cytokine proteins, therefore reducing depression.

 

Ways to help our children experience awe

The world offers so many opportunities for us to feel awe, but how can we capture these moments for our children? The key is to seek out experiences that 1) involve a sense of vastness and 2) alter their perspective.

Fortunately, children are born with a sense of wonder and amazement. “They are naturally curious and interested, with a great imagination and a special ability to see beauty and good all around them,” explains Dr. Brenda Abbey, educational consultant and director of Childcare by Design in Australia.

However, children need direction from their parents who can share these moments with them. “We need to model, identify, respond to, preserve, nourish, enrich, and sustain these special moments in our lives.”

By visiting, recording, viewing, and listening, our children will be exposed to many potential awe-inspiring moments. To make the most out of these experiences, take the time to ask your children how these encounters make them feel. Reflection reinforces the positive energy and encourages curiosity.

Andy Tix, professor at Normandale Community College in Minnesota who writes about awe on his blog Reflections on Mystery and Awe, notes that “awe seems more likely to thrive in an environment of inquisitiveness and questioning.” So ask lots of questions and allow your children to do the same.

1 | Visit

In order for children to truly understand awe, they need to experience it. Andy Tix believes that travel provides endless opportunities for awe because we are exposed to stimuli that are out of our typical routine. He suggests families take “awecations,” instead of just vacations, to places that can inspire awe. If you can’t get away, look for local spots to explore. Remember to consider your child’s age, interest, and attention span when you choose where to take them.

We can find awe just about anywhere. Here are a few ideas for your next awe adventure:

Nature: zoos, mountains, forests, hiking trails, beaches, waterfalls, clear starry nights, sunsets, sunrises, botanical gardens, canyons, caves

Urban: historical monuments, skyscrapers, subway systems, large sports stadiums

Indoor: libraries; art, science, and history museums; cathedrals; concerts; musicals and other performances; planetariums; aquariums

2 | Record

Writing: Developing an awe narrative is an effective way for children to capture an awe-inspiring moment. Julie Mann, high school teacher in Queens, New York who also spoke at The Art and Science Of Awe conference, added journal writing to her curriculum as a way for students to reflect about awe for time, space, amazing events, and people who impact their lives.

Artwork: Ask your children to create their own masterpiece to reflect something that brought them awe. Tap into their talents using drawing, photography, painting, sculpture, or collage.

3 | View

Media: If you are unable to visit a place in person, the next best thing is to observe it using various media tools such as videos, photographs, slideshows, and even 3D or 4D movies at an IMAX theater. Images of nature’s beauty, such as sunrises, sunsets, weather events, and rainbows, tend to easily evoke feelings of awe. Check out these nature documentaries, Jason Silva’s Shots of Awe, and Louie Schwartzberg’s Gratitude Revealed.

Science experiments: Observing the incredible way science works can be quite powerful for a young child and pique their interest to learn more.

4 | Listen

Stories: Read awe-inspiring books, poetry, and short stories to your children, such as biographies about great heroes and descriptions of nature, scientific discoveries, great places, and historical events.

Music: Listen to touching music or play your own. From piano ballads of the great composers to rap songs about changing the world, your child will discover what moves them.

Awe offers so many ways for our children to prosper in this challenging world. Actively seeking opportunities to experience awe as a family is critical to their well-being, and has the power to improve society as a whole. 

Who said motherhood doesn't come with a manual?

Subscribe to get inspiration and super helpful ideas to rock your #momlife. Motherhood looks amazing on you.

Already a subscriber? Log in here.

By: Justine LoMonaco


From the moment my daughter was born, I felt an innate need to care for her. The more I experienced motherhood, I realized that sometimes this was simple―after all, I was hardwired to respond to her cries and quickly came to know her better than anyone else ever could―but sometimes it came with mountains of self-doubt.

This was especially true when it came to feeding. Originally, I told myself we would breastfeed―exclusively. I had built up the idea in my mind that this was the correct way of feeding my child, and that anything else was somehow cheating. Plus, I love the connection it brought us, and so many of my favorite early memories are just my baby and me (at all hours of night), as close as two people can be as I fed her from my breast.

Over time, though, something started to shift. I realized I felt trapped by my daughter's feeding schedule. I felt isolated in the fact that she needed me―only me―and that I couldn't ask for help with this monumental task even if I truly needed it. While I was still so grateful that I was able to breastfeed without much difficulty, a growing part of me began fantasizing about the freedom and shared burden that would come if we bottle fed, even just on occasion.

I was unsure what to expect the first time we tried a bottle. I worried it would upset her stomach or cause uncomfortable gas. I worried she would reject the bottle entirely, meaning the freedom I hoped for would remain out of reach. But in just a few seconds, those worries disappeared as I watched her happily feed from the bottle.

What I really didn't expect? The guilt that came as I watched her do so. Was I robbing her of that original connection we'd had with breastfeeding? Was I setting her up for confusion if and when we did go back to nursing? Was I failing at something without even realizing it?

In discussing with my friends, I've learned this guilt is an all too common thing. But I've also learned there are so many reasons why it's time to let it go.

1) I'm letting go of guilt because...I shouldn't feel guilty about sharing the connection with my baby. It's true that now I'm no longer the only one who can feed and comfort her any time of day or night. But what that really means is that now the door is open for other people who love her (my partner, grandparents, older siblings) to take part in this incredible gift. The first time I watched my husband's eyes light up as he fed our baby, I knew that I had made the right choice.

2) I'm letting go of guilt because...the right bottle will prevent any discomfort. It took us a bit of trial and error to find the right bottle that worked for my baby, but once we did, we rarely dealt with gas or discomfort―and the convenience of being able to pack along a meal for my child meant she never had to wait to eat when she was hungry. Dr. Brown's became my partner in this process, offering a wide variety of bottles and nipples designed to mimic the flow of my own milk and reduce colic and excess spitting up. When we found the right one, it changed everything.

3) I'm letting go of guilt because...I've found my joy in motherhood again. That trapped feeling that had started to overwhelm me? It's completely gone. By removing the pressure on myself to feed my baby a certain way, I realized that it was possible to keep her nourished and healthy―while also letting myself thrive.

So now, sometimes we use the bottle. Sometimes we don't. But no matter how I keep my baby fed, I know we've found the right way―guilt free.


This article is sponsored by Dr. Browns. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.


You might also like:

Learn + Play

If there's one item that people claim is *so* worth the price-tag, it's a Dyson vacuum. The cordless tools have become essentials in homes, cleaning up messes quickly, all without the hassle of a cord.

If you've avoided purchasing one because of the high cost, you're in luck! They're having a sale on Amazon right now. Some of the most popular vacuums and air purifiers are up to 40% off.

Dyson Cyclone V10 Lightweight Cordless Stick Vacuum Cleaner, $379.99

dyson vacuum on sale

Arguably the most popular of the Dyson family, and marked down 20%.

BUY

Motherly is your daily #momlife manual; we are here to help you easily find the best, most beautiful products for your life that actually work. We share what we love—and we may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

You might also like:

Shop

Beyoncé's new Netflix documentary Homecoming hit the streaming service today and gives us an honest look at how difficult her twin pregnancy was.

"My body went through more than I knew it could," she says in the film, revealing that her pregnancy with Sir and Rumi was a shock right from the beginning, and the surprises kept coming.

In the film she reveals that her second pregnancy was unexpected, "And it ended up being twins which was even more of a surprise," she explains.

Homecoming: A Film By Beyoncé | Official Trailer | Netflix

The pregnancy was rough. Beyoncé developed preeclampsia, a condition that impacts about 5 to 8% of pregnancies and results in high blood pressure and the presence of protein in the mother's urine. Preeclampsia poses risks to both the mother and the baby. People who are pregnant with multiples, like Beyoncé was, are more at risk to develop preeclampsia, and the only real cure for the condition is to give birth, which proved to be another medical challenge for Beyoncé.

"In the womb, one of my babies' hearts paused a few times so I had to get an emergency C-section," she shares in the film.

Thankfully, Beyoncé made it through her extremely difficult pregnancy, but the physical challenges didn't end there. The road to rehabilitation for the performer was difficult because, as she explains, she was trying to learn new choreography while her body was repairing cut muscles and her mind just wanted to be home with her children.

FEATURED VIDEO

"There were days that I thought I'd never be the same. I'd never be the same physically, my strength and endurance would never be the same," Beyoncé recalls.

We know that becoming a mother changes us in so many ways, and in Homecoming, Beyoncé shows the world the strength that mothers possess, and rejects any ideas about "bouncing back."

Becoming a mother is hard, but it is so worth it, and Beyoncé isn't looking backward—she's looking at a mother in the mirror and loving who and what she sees. "I just feel like I'm just a new woman in a new chapter of my life and I'm not even trying to be who I was," Beyoncé said in the documentary. "It's so beautiful that children do that to you."

You might also like:

News

Warmer weather is finally here, mama—and that means it's time to switch up the family's wardrobes. 🙌 If you love matching with your little, or are determined to *finally* get those family photos made this spring or summer, we're obsessed with these mommy and me matching sets.

Here are some of our favorite mommy and me matching outfits for spring. 😍

1. Ivy City Co Jumpsuits, $42.00-$62.00

mommy and me matching jumpsuits

This linen set is perfect for transitioning from hanging out at home to dressing up for days out. Plus, plenty of space for growth!

BUY

2. Madewell x crewcuts Denim Set, $55.00 and up

mommy and me matching denim set

We're obsessed with the '90s vibes these sets give. Now to decide which to choose—denim jacket, shorts, or dress?

BUY

3. Old Navy Floral Midi Dresses, $10.00-$22.50

Old navy mommy and me matching dresses

Nothing says spring quite like florals. The whimsical prints are dainty and the rayon fabric is breathable for those warmer days. Shop mama's version here.

BUY

4. PatPat Matching Family Swimwear, $19.99 and up

matching family swimwear

Match with the entire family with this pinstripe set. We love the one shoulder look, too!

BUY

5. Keds x Rifle Paper Co Sneakers, $44.95-$79.95

mommy and me matching shoes

Twin with your little in these embroidered canvas sneakers. Bonus points for a rubber outsole so no slipping. 👏Shop the version for mama here.

BUY

6. Lily Pulitzer Shift Dresses, $58.00-$198.00

Lilly pulitzer matching dresses

Still not sure what to wear for Easter or that summer soirée? Pick up these matching shift dresses for the most beautiful family photos. Shop mama's version here.

BUY

7. Maisonette x marysia Swimwear, $57.00 and up

Mommy and me matching swimwear

These are definitely splurge-worthy, but we can't get over how adorable they pair together.

BUY

8. PatPat Gingham Dresses, $17.99-23.99

mommy and me matching gingham dresses

These will be your go-to pick for every outing this spring and summer.

BUY

9. Old Navy Striped Oxford Shirts, $13.00-$22.00

matching striped oxford shirts

A relaxed oxford is a staple in everyone's closet. It's versatile enough to dress up or pair with denim for a more laid back look. Shop mama's version here.

BUY

10. Pink Chicken Garden Dress, $72.00-$198.00

pink chicken matching garden dress

Whether you have a spring wedding to attend or want something flowy to wear for vacation, we adore these garden dresses. Bonus points for working for maternity wear, too.

BUY

Motherly is your daily #momlife manual; we are here to help you easily find the best, most beautiful products for your life that actually work. We share what we love—and we may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

You might also like:

Shop

Being a perfectionist has naturally been part of who I was since as long as I can remember. I could blame living in the continental U.S., where perfectionism is highly esteemed, or the family dynamics that come with growing up in a household of five women.

Deep down, though, I think it all really stems from a deep and instinctual longing to be loved, accepted and approved. Whatever the reason, it has never really been a part of me that I considered a problem.

That is, until, I became a mom.

When I had my first child, I did the best I could to keep it all together, to prevent people from seeing how my perfection was being pulled apart at the seams.

A nap schedule was, of course, essential. My son was easygoing and slept through the night like an angel baby. My house was still spotless and I managed to somehow work part-time and keep healthy meals on the table every night, but I did struggle tremendously with breastfeeding.

Since I took this failure as a great assault at my abilities to properly nurture my child, I let mom guilt run rampant over the issue. I decided I would just step up my perfect-parenting game in another way by pumping breastmilk around the clock until my son was around 18 months old.

FEATURED VIDEO

For anyone who has ever exclusively pumped, you know it can become total madness and take away the joy of feeding your child.

Managing a toddler was definitely wild, but with my background in pediatrics, I knew how to keep him busy while I kept things "under control." In other words, with just one child, I could still play the part of being perfect. All was fine until I became a mom of two children. It wasn't long after my daughter was born that I realized I needed to start letting go of perfection.

I was living alone in a new city with no help and my husband worked long hours. Managing a 2-year-old and a newborn, all while trying to keep a perfectly clean house and healthy dinners on the table every night, was, to my surprise, impossible in every way. My body was a wreck, not "bouncing back" as it did with my first. My daughter never slept for more than three hours until she was over a year old. She cried for hours on end most nights, as I tried relentlessly to calm her.

I remember bouncing her in her carrier for hours trying to get her to calm down and settle in for sleep. Meanwhile, I was a zombie and my son tore every square inch of the house into pieces. Keeping a naptime schedule was nearly impossible with another child to consider. Dinner was often takeout. There were days when I didn't look in the mirror or have proper clothing on until 5 pm.

The demands of motherhood laughed at my idea of picture-perfect motherhood. Every night I went to bed feeling like I had failed my children. I cried. Oh man, did I cry.

It wasn't long until I came to the realization that if I wanted to be a good mom, that is, to focus on things that are actually important, I had to stop sweating all the small stuff.

Even though I didn't really know how I was relieved that I didn't have to keep up with myself anymore. I had grown so weary of the high standards I had set for myself and those around me. I wanted a way out of the perfectionist trap and to loosen the reigns.

I realized that the most beautiful encounters with my children had been when I decided to say, "Oh, don't worry about it!" (i.e. the house, dinner, naptime schedules, etc). Love and joyful encounters with my children was incomparable to the latter. I knew my children needed me to look at them and not the 3-day- old stain on the dining room floor. The beauty in the moments, when I intentionally chose stillness and gratitude over productivity, was the reason I decided it was time to lay down a life-long pattern of perfectionism and control.

The problem was, I didn't really know where to start. I had been living this way for more than three decades. But I did know that I needed to start somewhere. So I started practicing being imperfect. Just like I had been teaching my 4-year old son. "The only way to get better at something is by practicing," I would tell him.

So, I did. And so I still am, practicing being imperfect.

You might also like:

Life
Motherly provides information of a general nature and is designed for educational purposes only. This site does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.Your use of the site indicates your agreement to be bound by our  Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. Information on our advertising guidelines can be found here.