Awe Leaves Us Lost and Found

While posting an article yesterday to the IdeaFestival's Facebook page about why spending time and money on experiences rather than possessions leads to more happiness, I remembered an older IdeaFestival blog post on the subject of awe. I thought I'd share an edited version with you today.

Want more time? Experience more awe.

Stanford Business School, PhD candidate Melanie Rudd does a tremendous job of unpacking the experience of awe, pointing out its relationship "to a boost in life satisfaction," and that it "alters decision making" in ways that promote cohesion, empathy, warmth and solicitude.

She suggests "perceptual vastness" as one of the key characteristics of awe. That vastness, she says, could be physical - think of watching the sun set, or of lingering beneath a dark night sky pricked by thousands of nearby suns - or it could be abstract. I've often wondered, for example, what it must feel like to read a page of equations and realize that the math describes a particular topology, or suggests vanishingly small folds in the time and space we know so well.

Even more importantly, those awe-inspiring realizations, as Rudd points out, create "a need for accommodation," the desire to understand, to interpret and to incorporate the knowledge. We want more.

We want to share more.

Awe is fleeting. The existentialism of Sartre, the phenomenology of Husserl and the mysticism of Sufis and Pentecostals alike, prioritize experience over rule following. I understand that. Being open to new experience is an important tool for survival, in business and in life.

The IdeaFestival is all about an openness to experience, which, incidentally, is perhaps the single most important trait of creative people everywhere.

Many of us can also relate to being so absorbed by a particular activity that we've lost track of time. Jazz musicians and crossword puzzle solvers can recall moments of particular clarity that emerge from this immersion in the moment. That feeling of "flow," described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, is especially conducive to creativity, and is being explored by any number of people and organizations, including, of course, one doctoral candidate at the Stanford Business School.

"Experience more awe" is easier said than done, of course. But a good place to start might be with the following: When was the last time you were completely lost in an activity?

Go from there.

Stay curious.