Does Feeling Awe Do Something Extra for HSPs?

A highly sensitive person lying down gazing up at the sky and feeling a sense of awe

The feeling of awe can change lives. But where does it come from — and does it do something special for HSPs that no one else experiences?

Awe-struck, awesome, awe-inspiring — these are words that are freely used in our language today. You’ve probably used them yourself, likely not long ago. But if I were to ask you to recall the last time you actually felt awe, I’ll bet the answer doesn’t come to you as readily. 

Awe is an elusive emotion but it’s likely you’ve felt it at some point. And If you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP) like me, there are good reasons for bringing more awe into your life — it might even do something special for HSPs that others don’t experience.

What Does It Mean to Feel Awe?

Awe is such a small, unassuming word for an emotion so powerful. Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has written extensively on the subject of awe. In his book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it can Transform Your Life, he defines awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.” I don’t know about you, but just reading that definition makes me feel good. 

You might be most familiar with awe from its central role in the experience of nature, religion, politics, or art. Awe can be felt in any event or moment that represents something bigger than itself, and there are cultural and contextual variations of the awe experience. Nevertheless it is still a universal emotion. 

Awe is not strictly positive — that’s why the word “awful” means something so different from “awesome” — but it is often an emotion that guides us toward that which matters to us. In this article, we will look at awe in terms of the positive effects it has — especially for highly sensitive people.

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The Two ‘Building Blocks’ of Awe

Where does awe come from? In a landmark paper by Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, they propose that awe is characterized by two features: “perceived vastness” and a “need for accommodation.” Here’s how these two ingredients lead to awe:

  • Perceived vastness means anything that is seen as “being much larger than the self or the self’s ordinary experience.” Vastness can mean actual physical size (like the Grand Canyon) or social size, such as power, fame or prestige (think of meeting the president, or a childhood hero). Vastness can include sounds or movement or being in a space that suggests a higher presence. That’s why cathedrals often invoke awe — they are design to be tall, vast spaces with colored light filtering down from above, as if standing at the gates of Heaven. 
  • Need for accommodation means the process of adjusting the mental structures with which we view the world to incorporate new experiences. That can involve opening your mind, seeing something in a new light, or allowing yourself to embrace a new experience. It also means pushing your limits. Such “accommodation” can be challenging, even disorienting, because awe-inspiring experiences often fall outside of your everyday knowledge. (This is part of why people feel so transformed and enlightened by travel: the places they go may be totally normal to those who live there, but are completely outside of the traveler’s normal everyday life. Travel can therefore provoke awe, in a way that your home simply cannot.) Whenever an experience requires you to expand to accommodate something new, you start to feel vaster in your own right, provoking awe. 

In his work, Keltner draws on his own experiences of feeling awe: you might feel awe in the presence of a person you admire, the spectrum of colors in a sunset, or the wonder of a newborn’s perfectly tiny hands and feet. 

Awe is an experience characterized by feelings of wonder, collaboration and creativity. Thinking about my own life experiences, I’ve found awe is elicited in new endeavors and it’s often sprung up on me unexpectedly. Last summer’s women’s football world cup is an example of when I experienced awe unexpectedly. 

Is Awe Vanishing from Your Life? 

Awe relies on us having an awareness and often puts in an appearance in the quiet moments, or when we’re present in our bodies and minds. Therefore, is awe an elusive emotion in our lives? Some psychologists believe we are in fact awe-deprived. 

The culture in the United States is an individualistic one, one which rewards accomplishments, materialism and gains. To achieve these things, often we are in a state of doing rather than being, sometimes even numb to the world around us. We prize intellect and the rational, we laud busyness over quietness. And this means increasingly we are living distanced from our bodies and the natural world. 

People are spending less time in the natural world, participation in organized religion has decreased in many developed countries and the way we spend our work and leisure time means we’re increasingly in isolation from others. Does this mean we prize external experiences over the invisible, that which can ‘only’ be felt rather than measured or compared?

Does Technology Mute Our Sense of Awe?

Technology has played a huge part in the speed at which we now live and how we interact with each other and our world.  We socialize by logging into multiplayer games and we have fewer manual jobs because computers and mechanization have stepped in instead. 

Type anything into an internet search engine and technology will find what you’re seeking. We can also drop our computer cursor anywhere on a map of the world and see it, without having to leave the comfort of our homes. We can watch video tutorials and reels from everything from how to change a car tyre to what the northern lights look like over Lapland. 

Having ready access to information and content can lead us to feel as though we have seen it all, there is nothing new under the sun. 

In contrast to our instant and distanced culture, awe is experienced in the quiet, tiny and often fleeting moments that require us to be in a state of awareness or openness. How many of us can say they are in a state of awareness every day? I know I can’t. 

I don’t think we’ve lost our capacity to feel awe, instead I think it’s that it’s slipped from our everyday experiences. 

For HSPs, having down time and regular time to ourselves is absolutely vital if we’re to flourish. Those of us who are aware of this may be more likely to experience awe. 

Is Awe Good for Your Health?

In a 2022 study, Keltner and co-author Maria Monroy asked whether awe could be a pathway to mental or physical health. To answer that, they looked at three very different experiences that can provoke awe: spiritual contemplation, being moved by music, and taking psychedelic drugs (!). Reviewing these experiences and a wealth of other studies, they were able to dig into the neurology of awe — and the powerful ways in which it benefits your body, mind, and social connections. 

For one thing, they found, feelings of awe can bring heart rate changes and “goosebumps.” Psychological effects can include an increased positive mood and sense of connectedness.

In fact, experiencing awe triggers the release of oxytocin, which has been described as the love hormone;  research links oxytocin to social ties, bonding and relationships. The hormone makes you feel safe and is an antidote to stress — both of which can be especially useful for highly sensitive people, whose nervous systems are quicker to trigger than most.

Why Awe Is Especially Good for HSPs

Research suggests that a person’s tendency to experience awe is related to other positive character traits such as appreciation of beauty, gratitude and creativity. Highly sensitive people are known for their increased empathy, their capacity for deep thought, and how they are highly affected by beauty and tend to seek answers to the big questions in life. 

Some of the challenges of high sensitivity include being more affected by time pressure, noise and change. These challenges mean HSPs are more prone to feeling stress.  

Highly sensitive people feel more deeply than others. They have more finely tuned nervous systems which mean they’re more likely to experience the world more deeply, everything is more heightened. We know that their depth of sensory processing can cause overwhelm.

HSPs can reduce their feelings of stress by feeling more grounded and present. When we think of an awe-inspiring experience, let’s say viewing the wondrous beauty of the Yosemite National Park, or marvel at the detail shown at the end of a telescope, do we think about our to-do list? No. We’re fully present for a moment, however brief. 

Due to the sensitivity of an HSP’s nervous system and processing sensitivity, they may be prone to feeling time pressure and even time anxiety. Studies suggest that feeling awe can help us to  feel we have more time .

Awe’s ability to increase feelings of interconnectedness may help foster relationships which are important for good wellbeing.  HSPs need to feel authentic connections with others and the world around them so awe can help us feel more connected to others.

Research strongly suggests that there are three types of HSPs; the “super sensor,” the “super feeler” and the “aesthete.” (You can be more than one type, or even all three.) Those with heightened aesthetic sensitivity may be more able to feel awe more frequently. In fact, studies suggest that individuals who are more open to new experiences and more comfortable with ambiguity may have an increased capacity for experiencing awe. The aesthete HSP who is highly attuned to beauty, art or physical surroundings may have a capacity for noticing the triggers which often lead to awe. 

Whatever type of HSP you are, your keen sense of feeling and depth of processing means that you’re able to benefit from feeling awe because of this depth of feeling. As a result of this HSPs may feel awe more deeply than non-HSPs. I can recall many times when a piece of music or a highly emotional scene in a television drama has given me the chills. When I’ve compared my experience to my non-HSP partner’s reaction to the same scene, most of the time they haven’t shared my reaction. 

In other words:

  • HSPs may be more capable of feeling awe than other people are
  • Awe may affect us more strongly, including its positive benefits
  • Awe may specifically combat the type of stress — time anxiety — that otherwise sends HSPs into “overwhelm mode.” 

If that’s the case, then taking time to feel awe in your life may be akin to a silver bullet for your most stressful HSP moments. 

Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System? 

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How to Cultivate Awe in Your Life

Awe can be found almost anywhere with the right perspective, but some conditions make it easy to cultivate awe no matter who you are. Here are three of the most reliable ways to experience awe:

1. Seek novel experiences

Awe is found in the everyday and the bigger moments in life. People who are more open to new experiences may feel more awe. What you find awe-inspiring will differ from another person and what one person defines as a novel experience another might not. Your hike high to the hills high above your hometown might be novel to you, or you might find wonder in the way a tiny flower pokes its head from between the cracks in the pavement in the parking lot outside your workplace. 

As an HSP, you might be craving something more authentic and quieter, calmer. The context and scale of the event will be personal to you and this will give it meaning. You might find awe in the connection with a like-minded soul, or in the process  of creating art. 

2. Follow your heroes

If you want to experience awe more, follow your heroes. Follow those people who you admire, who you idolize, those who inspire you and you’ll feel awe, I guarantee it. For me, discovering my favorite football player and realizing I idolized them is a constant dose of oxytocin. We need these people in our lives. 

Those of you reading this who have watched their favorite musician live in concert among other excited fans will know the powerful emotions involved. You may feel awe at the way one person can affect a vast audience. You only have to see the Taylor Swift mania to acknowledge that awe can be found in following your heroes. 

3. Capture your experiences

You might not be able to cultivate new experiences for creating awe, so why not re-live previous awe-inspiring moments? Depending on the type of experience or moment, you could capture them by taking photographs or videos. By documenting some of these moments and viewing them after the fact, you could capture some of that magic you felt at the time. At the very least you will be taking a moment to pause in your day and that is never a bad idea. 

Although I can’t beat the feeling of watching my footballing idols run along the pitch just meters away from me, watching the videos of that time captured on my phone reminds me how recording these experiences help lift my mood. 

Awe is an experience characterized by feelings of wonder, collaboration and creativity. Knowing that our experience of awe can bring such positive effects should be a positive idea for HSPs means we could all benefit from cultivating more awe in our lives. After all, if we’re going to feel all our emotions so strongly, don’t we deserve to revel in the most positive emotion of all? 

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