What is Awe?

The technical definition

Awe is an emotional mix of fear, wonder, and reverence experienced when someone is overwhelmed by the presence of something powerful. The trigger for these feelings is typically viewed as especially beautiful, threatening, talented, virtuous, or supernatural in nature.

Huh? What does that mean?

Most of us can probably recall a moment when we’ve experienced awe, although we may not have had words to describe it at the time. When one experiences awe, it is not uncommon for them to have difficulties expressing how they feel because the experience of awe is often very intense and it is a mix of emotions.

These are some examples of experiences that tend to bring about the experience of awe:

  • A landscape with incredible aesthetic beauty, like an Evergreen covered mountainscape, the shimmering turquoise waters of the Caribbean, or the known wonders of the world such as the Great Egyptian Pyramids or Stonehenge. Parents may also recall experiencing awe the very first moment they looked into their newborn child’s eyes.
  • Someone with great talent and ability, like a basketball superstar or an exceptionally talented concert pianist can elicit awe from their audience.
  • Forces of nature that we view to be a threat, like a daunting thunder and lightening storm; some may experience awe while viewing the footage of a tsunami or tornado on TV.
  • The virtuousness of people who dedicate their lives to the service of others or have overcome adversity for the greater good, like Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King for example, often leave onlookers feeling “awe-struck.”
  • Encounters believed to be supernatural in nature may also bring us to a state of awe– where it’s an encounter related to a spirit, a ghost, or even God.


How can I use this in my life?

The term “awe-inspiring” literally means that awe inspires us, and it can be the launching point of significant desired change.  If we are feeling low on inspiration, feeling stagnant in our development, or just seeking a jump start in our lives, experiencing awe may an initial first step.

Some ideas for generating moments of awe:

    • Seek out the beauty in the world that inspires you. Maybe it’s time for that vacation or hike you’ve been thinking about, or maybe the local concert hall or museum is more up your alley.  Discover what is most beautiful to you, and begin to seek out ways to experience it.
    • Consider who you admire, and determine what characteristics about them make you begin to dream big in your own life. Explore what manifesting one of those characteristics in your own life might produce for you.
    • Connect with your spiritual philosophy. Contemplating the inner-workings of the universe or the beginning of creation or getting in touch with whom or what you believe to be God all can generate a sense of awe. Stop by your local bookstore, take a philosophy class, or set up a meeting with your local pastor, rabbi, or other religious leader to ask questions.
    • Approach the world with a childlike lens. Be open to experiencing things in a different way. Children are often more susceptible to awe because they regularly encounter new things; as we age, our knowledge base becomes more fixed, and we are less likely to become enamoured by newness.
    • Volunteer or find a way to get involved with a community who is already inspired around a common cause, like an advocacy group, your local civic center, a homeless shelter, or maybe even a political rally


Haidt, J., & Seder, P. (2009) Admiration and Awe. Entry for the Oxford Companion to Affective Science. New York: Oxford University Press. Pp.4-5

Keltner, D., & Haidt, J . (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 297-314.

1 thought on “What is Awe?”

  1. I love the suggestion, “Approach the world with a childlike lens.” I know some studies have shown that curiosity declines with age (not surprisingly), and this seems sad! Children are so curious about the world around them, and while part of that would naturally decline with age (when we’re older, we’re used to things and not everything has a “newness” about it), I still think that cultivating curiosity is important. And, awe is a wonderful feeling, so if curiosity and being open to new experiences can generate it, I would be more than willing to replace my “adult lens” with a more childlike one!


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.