A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes. Sign up for my newsletter to get my articles straight to your inbox.
Something strange happens when astronauts see Earth from space for the first time.
The view made Apollo 15's Jim Irwin an evangelist and Al Worden a poet. Apollo 16's Charlie Duke became a born-again Christian. And Apollo 14's Edgar Mitchell left NASA to form the Institute of Noetic Sciences, an organization dedicated to the science of inner wisdom.
Psychologist Frank White called the lump sum of these life-altering experiences "the overview effect." The term specifically refers to the sense of "wonder and awe, unity with nature, transcendence and universal brotherhood" that astronauts experience upon seeing a floating, far-away Earth.
But new research reveals that you don't need to leave the planet to change your perspective in life or work.
The Science of Awe
Craig Anderson, a PhD candidate studying awe at the University of California, Berkeley, says awe is when "you don't feel like you [can] wrap your mind around it completely."
The result somewhat literally blows your mind. A recent University of Pennsylvania study explained:
When individuals encounter something that cannot be reduced to preexisting elements in a given schema, they must 'accommodate,' expanding that framework to take new information into account.
In short, awe expands our perspective. Or, as awe researcher Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota told the Atlantic,
People mostly walk around with a sense of knowing what is going on in the world. They have hypotheses about the way people behave and what might happen; those are pretty air-tight ... When you are in a state of awe, it puts you off balance and as a consequence, we think people might be ready to learn new things and have some of their assumptions questioned.
Awe's self-transcendent side effect occurs for obvious reasons: "You see how diminutive your life and concerns are compared to other things in the universe," explained astronaut Ed Gibson.
But its consequences are invaluable:
One study found that awe diminishes one's self concerns and increases altruistic behavior. After staring at a large grove of eucalyptus trees, participants reported feeling less self-important and entitled. In consequence, they were later more likely to help out a stranger.
Awe slows our perception of time. A Stanford study found that participants in awe felt they had more time available and were more patient than participants not induced to feel awe.
Astronaut Boris Volynov's experience seeing Earth echoes these reactions: "you become more full of life, softer. You begin to look at all living things with greater trepidation and you begin to be more kind and patient with the people around you."
Awe also makes us more creative. One Berkeley study found that watching short BBC videos of expansive Earth images increased participants' creativity and persistence at solving problems. In another, awe made participants more curious--even weeks after the initial boost.
Likewise, a Tel Aviv University study concluded that "expansive thinking" could boost creativity and help children consider perspectives outside their present situation.
In sum, awe helps people "be more adaptive, feel more connected, reframe troubles," wrote the Penn psychologists.
For all these reasons, awe can jar our personal and professional ruts. The challenge is creating awesome experiences on average days.
How to Experience Awe
Unsurprisingly, travel, staring at the stars and anything in large quantities make us feel awe. But researchers note that there are subtler, commoner ways to feel awe, too.
Technologies that capture our attention, like IMAX films, storytelling platforms or even video games, can provoke selfless immersion. Likewise, yoga, meditation, walking, looking at something beautiful, silence, drawing and even sleep can help us lose ourselves and, later, return to our lives with renewed perspective. Even random acts of kindness can impart us with simple wonder and humility.
Abraham Maslow wrote, "The great lesson from the true mystics is that the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one's daily life, in one's neighbors, friends, and family, in one's backyard."
If you want a tangible practice for perspective, try this Buddhist meditation: sit down, close your eyes and visualize watching yourself sit. See yourself inside the room, what you're next to, the windows, the doors. Then zoom out: see the building you're inside. Imagine it's a dollhouse, so your head is still visible from the top. Then zoom further out, to your city. Think of what your city would like from a helicopter; your region from a plane; your country from a satellite.
And then, finally, see your Earth from space, where a select few bubble-headed humans have stood dumbfounded and changed forever.
Awe is a feeling. But it's also a choice that can shift what you think and how you work.
There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. -- Albert Einstein
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