The Creative Fuel Series: How Awe Boosts Creativity
Creativity requires us to be open to the world around us. It requires us to be curious and imaginative. It requires us to reconsider what we know about the world around us and think about it in a different way. Creativity is a process of seeking out the novel and embracing the change that comes with it.
Part of that is facilitated by personality—some of us are naturally more open to new experiences, and that has an impact on creativity. But there are also ways to challenge our minds to rethink how we envision the world around us. One of those is awe.
Have you ever stood staring at a night sky and been amazed thinking about how big the universe is? Or have you looked at a piece of artwork and been so moved that you couldn’t pull yourself away from it? Or have you gone camping and woken up to a sunrise over a stunning landscape so beautiful you can’t put it into words? If you have, then you’ve experienced awe, a complex emotion that’s believed to have helped us evolve as a human species. Today, scientists are looking at the importance of awe in our everyday lives, and the findings have significant takeaways for those of us looking to deepen our creative connections.
What is Awe?
We probably all know what awe feels like, but in recent years, social scientists have begun directing attention to the science of awe. In 2003, along with Jonathan Haidt, Dacher Keltner wrote one of the seminal papers on awe. As Keltner writes, “awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.”
According to Keltner and Haidt, there are two key aspects to awe: that experience of vastness, and a need for “accomodation” for that vastness. A theory originally proposed by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, this act of “accommodation” is essential for learning, and an important part of widening our sense of understanding the world around us. When it comes to awe, we experience something that transcends our understanding of the world around us and our brain scrambles to make sense of it all, which in turn causes us to reshape how we think about things.
Even if you didn’t know the science behind it, you’ve probably felt that sense of awe numerous times in your life. It’s the experience that sometimes leaves you with goosebumps or chills, that moment where you feel like you lose your breath, or that you feel an unexpected sense of deep emotion. Looking out over an immense landscape, watching a stunning sunset, looking at new NASA photos of the universe—there are all kinds of things that can help us to feel that sense of vastness.
Of course vastness doesn’t have to necessarily be physically large. We can experience a sense of vastness in the smallest of ways, too, like looking at the intricacies in the bark of a tree or how mycelium spreads out underneath the forest floor. Awe resides in all kinds of places—in beautiful pieces of music, in the night sky, in the petals of a flower, in a piece of artwork, in the intricacy of a snowflake under a microscope. As Terry Tempest Williams writes in The Hour of Land, “Awe sneaks up on us like love. We surrender to the ecstatic outpouring of life before us.”
Why Awe is Essential
We need awe for all kinds of reasons. It has been described as the “ultimate collective emotion” because it takes us outside of ourselves. If our perspective shifts away from its usual narrow, inward focus, perhaps we can then better focus on the greater good. Awe helps to better connect us and bind us together, motivating us to act in more collaborative ways. It makes us feel better, it humbles us, it makes us more generous and kind, and can help us to think more critically. Even scientists who experience awe, beauty, and wonder in their work have better job satisfaction.
“Momentary experiences of awe stimulate wonder and curiosity,” writes Keltner, and it’s perhaps no surprise then that there is a link between this complex emotion and creativity. Awe welcomes us to step out of the box and envision something different. It can be a catalyst for new ideas and the openness that’s required for being open to inspiration. Afterall, creativity is an act of reshaping how we think about things—a constant process of problem-solving, fueled by questioning, readjusting, and finding new solutions. What better way to fuel that process than to seek out awe in all of its forms?
“Awe increases our tolerance for uncertainty and opens our receptivity to new and unusual ideas,” writes Helen deCruz, professor of philosophy at Saint Louis University. This makes it particularly important for anyone working in a field that requires thinking about things in new ways. If we are to continually be open to new ideas, then we need to be open to awe. But a lot of us are often awe-deprived—staring at our phones, refreshing news feeds, feeling stressed and pulled in all directions. We spend less time outdoors and we’re cramped for time. These aren’t the spaces in which awe flourishes.To prioritize the creativity-boosting power of awe, we have to make a shift in how we go about our days.
Some of our most awe-struck moments may have been born from pure serendipity, but we can actively seek out awe in our everyday lives, too. Nature and art have been shown to be particularly good facilitators of awe, which is an excellent argument for getting outside or going to a museum next time you feel yourself in the midst of a creative block. You can also incorporate a daily “awe walk” into your practice—a simple 15-minute stroll with the intent of paying close attention to the world around you.
Find Awe in the Everyday
“Yes, awe arises during the extraordinary,” writes Keltner. “More frequently, though, people report feeling awe in response to more mundane things: when seeing the leaves of a Gingko tree change from green to yellow, in beholding the night sky when camping near a river, in seeing a stranger give their food to a homeless person, in seeing their child laugh just like their brother.” This is perhaps the most exciting thing about awe: it doesn’t just have to come in big moments.
But to find that everyday sense of awe, we need an active approach. As Michelle Shiota, a professor of social psychology at Arizona State University, told the BBC, “it’s all about choosing to experience and attend to the extraordinary in our world, rather than that which is, for us, routine.” There are all kinds of things around us in our everyday life that can provoke a sense of awe, but we have to be open to them.
If we embrace a sense of daily curiosity and welcome more awe in, we can turn a mundane experience into the opportunity for a sense of wonder and curiosity, fueling our creativity in the process.