The Awe Blog
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The Awe Blog

In A World Divided Awe Will Unite Us

Experiencing more awe enables a new type of thinking

Photo by Uriel Soberanes on Unsplash

We’re divided.

A staggering 85% of Britons feel divided. 84% of Americans, 81% of Russians and Germans, and 52% of people in Japan. That’s a lot of disconnected people.

Enabled by tabloids and algorithms Popularism, pitting Them vs Us, has caught fire. These divisions slice through our countries, our communities and even our families. We each know how difficult it is to find consensus within a bickering family let alone a nation. Unity isn’t easy.

Of course, we all have a common enemy marching faster and faster towards our doorsteps — the climate emergency. This should be enough to unite us but whilst 500 million animals burn in apocalyptic Australia we continue to squabble, not noticing. One building burns in France and we donate $1 billion. We’re right to question these priorities.

In 1946, Einstein foresaw an impeding nuclear war. He understood the risks nuclear armament had for everyone. He was scared. “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels” he declared. In 2020, we’re on the cusp of something equally devastating, likely to cause mass human displacement, disease and biodiversity loss.

Our current thinking, crystallised with suspicion, anger and scepticism for one another, won’t bring us together. We need paradigm shifts. We need cognitive flexibility. We need to look above and beyond our day-to-day to heal our deep wounds.

There is a state of mind that reduces our need for cognitive closure which indicates that one is more open to modifying our world view. And gosh we need more of that right now. That state of mind is awe and we’ve all experienced it.

Standing on a mountain side, meeting an idol, witnessing an act of bravery, being presented by a complex idea like relativity — these are all awe-invoking experiences. True awe experiences are those moments where we’re humbled by something bigger than one’s self (perceived vastness) requiring a change in our world view to adapt to this realisation (need for accommodation). [2]

The prevalent French sociologist Émile Durkheim wrote about awe. He believed feelings of “love, fear and respect bind one individual to other individuals”. These emotions enhance the individual’s concerns such as safety or relative social standing. Whereas feelings like awe “binds the individual to social entities such as communities and nations”. These emotions have the power to “change people’s attitudes and inspire them to follow something larger than themselves”. In these divided times, upgrading our concerns to the collective, rather than individual level, focuses our efforts on higher priority problems. [1]

As we start a new decade, let’s take the opportunity to reset and forgive our differences. Let’s remember our connection to one another, to critter, to planet Earth. Notice the bigger picture. Awe, isn’t the end, but through this “new type of thinking”, this altered state, the motivation to solve the meaningful problems will come.

[1] Keltner, Dacher and Haidt, Jonathan (2003) ‘Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual and aesthestic emotion’, Cognition & Emotion, 17:2, 297–314.

[2] Allen S. (2018). The Science of Awe. Available from: https://ggsc.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/GGSC-JTF_White_Paper-Awe_FINAL.pdf.

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