On the third night of my camel trek from Jaisalmer, India, figures from the desert materialized in our camp: an old man swaddled in shawls and a boy clutching a plastic oil canister. Greetings made, they sat by our fire.
From his shawls, the man pulled out two flutes and began to play—a fluid, warbling melody over a low drone. The boy drummed his empty canister, producing booms and gulps like a tabla. Sparks crackled. The sky boiled with stars. In the intense silence between songs, you could hear the infinity of the universe. Although wrapped in a blanket, I had goose bumps.
What I was experiencing was awe—and according to a recent book, it was more profound than you might imagine.
In Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, argues that “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world” ranks among the most poorly understood yet most powerful emotions we possess.
Keltner’s analysis of the replies of 2,600 respondents from 26 countries to his questionnaire regarding awe-inspiring experiences finds eight sources of the emotion (“the eight wonders of life”), from the obvious such as nature, music, visual art, and mystical experiences to less tangible things such as the “moral beauty of others” (kindness, courage, etc.), epiphanies, and life-or-death experiences. Awe silences our narcissistic egos, Keltner argues. It makes us look beyond ourselves to ask big questions about existence and the universe, maybe to seek answers, whether spiritual or scientific.
For most of my traveling life, I’ve been an awe junkie. In the quest for experiences to elicit a “wow” or an “aah”—universal vocalizations of awe, Keltner discovers—I’ve trekked through the Annapurna range in the Himalayas and driven the Pamir Highway into the sunbaked badlands of Tajikistan, a high-altitude desert of horizon-shoving scale where fire-blackened sheep skulls in roadside shrines drip-fed into my hypoxia-induced dreams.
In search of awe, I traveled to South Australia’s Neptune Islands to dive with great white sharks. Once I faced down my “what ifs”—What if my oxygen runs out? What if the cage’s hoist cable snaps?—that science research trip was oddly moving. It felt a huge privilege to dangle over 60 feet underwater among these apex predators. I saw their evolutionary genius, even their beauty. After three dives, I recognized individual creatures.
The surprise is awe lies closer to home. “Cultural assumptions suggest awe is this mysterious feeling that only happens through meeting God or looking at the Grand Canyon,” Keltner tells me. “It turns out it’s one of the most commonplace emotions. You can cultivate it and feel it a couple of times a week. You slow down, pause, don’t try to pursue goals or label things. Then you think about those eight wonders in intentional ways.”
If this sounds like mindfulness, perhaps it is. If we experience more awe while traveling, maybe it’s because that’s when we’re more present. Once we’ve stepped off work’s merry-go-round, we notice the details. Last year, walking the Via degli Dei footpath, 80 miles from Bologna to Florence along ancient Etruscan and shepherd paths, I sat for an hour watching the wind pulse through a sun-silvered meadow. A sentence flitted around my head: “He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe is as good as dead.” Not a quote from a liberal academic but Albert Einstein. His wonder of physics led to E=MC2.
Another time on the same trail, I dawdled through a forest where the Roman legions once marched: Gold coins of sunlight scattered across a mossy road, the canopy rippling overhead like the surface of the ocean. It felt profound for reasons I couldn’t explain, except in terms of my insignificance compared to such age and beauty.
The most frequent source of awe among Keltner’s respondees was other people: “Those two findings, of recognizing most awe in moral beauty and everyday awe, blew me away. The everyday is the great provenance of awe, and our challenge is to find it: in patterns of light in the sky, the singing of kids, in human connections.”
One morning on the Via degli Dei, the twinkly, 70-something owner of an inn stopped me as I was heading out. “For energy on the route,” Jolanda explained as she gave me homemade almond-and-orange-zest biscuits called cantucci. When pressed, she admitted she’d risen at 5 a.m. to bake them. It’s nothing, she said with a shrug. I almost welled up. And this is where things get interesting.
Keltner suggests that awe bestows evolutionary advantage. Emotional tears occur when we recognize what binds us as communities. My goose bumps in the desert were a social mammal’s request for warmth via touch. “We’ve done research, and for groups to be effective, they need to collaborate, and the fact we’re so inspired by others’ moral beauty, even in strangers, tells us these good tendencies spread through networks and get stronger and more collaborative,” he explains. “That’s a big vein in evolutionary thinking right now.”
It’s a riposte to the individualism of Richard Dawkins’s “selfish gene.” And also why Keltner, after 20 years of studying happiness, believes awe is “the secret to living a good life of joy and meaning.” You could roll your eyes at this, if science wasn’t on his side. Awe experiences release oxytocin, the “love hormone” that promotes empathy. They also reduce anxiety by stimulating the vagus nerve between the nervous system and digestive tract.
Keltner says, “Go through what’s good for you on the medical checklist, and this mysterious emotion of awe hits every point: less stress, less physical pain for older people, better inflammation and immune profile, better cardiovascular profile. And that’s before a psychological profile of schoolkids becoming more curious, that you reason better, polarize political issues less, feel a greater sense of community.”
What awe doesn’t involve is wealth—none of Keltner’s respondees cited money or possessions as sources of awe. I suspect we know this intuitively. It’s telling that the fastest growth in the luxury travel sector is in trips that connect us to the land and to local people. Fine dining in a spectacular hotel or resort can be borderline transcendent, but I bet the encounters and discoveries are what you remember most afterwards.
In Awe’s conclusion, Keltner writes: “The epiphany of awe is that its experience connects our individual selves with the vast forces of life. In awe we understand we are part of many things that are much larger than the self.”
That’s travel exactly. Like awe, travel can be a transformational experience. In fact, I’d argue that awe is why we go away in the first place. Freed of routine and familiarity, we want to open up, to rediscover our wonder at how extraordinary the world and humanity are. And that, Keltner shows, has the potential to make us better people. Now isn’t that a good excuse to take a vacation?
James Stewart is a U.K.-based journalist who writes about travel and sailing.