What is awe? And can experiencing awe lead to a happier, healthier life? Henry Wismayer spends time with Dacher Keltner, a Berkeley psychology professor at the forefront of a scientific movement examining our least-understood emotional state. I’ve appreciated Wismayer’s contemplative essays on other subjects, especially travel and tourism, and this profile-reported essay hybrid is yet another thought-provoking read. It’s informative but not dense, and I came away from it fresh, open-minded, and ready to experience the day’s small wonders.

Out of this trove of 2,600 personal narratives, the team at Berkeley distilled a definitive catalogue of awe’s elicitors. Keltner dubbed them “the eight wonders of life.” The most common source of awe was the moral beauty of other people, such as witnessing instances of compassion or courage. Also prevalent was “collective effervescence,” the sense of transcendent unity we might feel at a sporting event or when dancing in unison with others. Then came two predictable ones: nature and music, to which was added a third aesthetic stimulus, visual design. The last three could be lumped together by those of a romantic disposition as matters of the soul: spiritual awe, life and death, and epiphanies, like Archimedes’ Eureka moment, or the Damascene conversion of St. Paul.

More by Henry Wismayer

The End of Travel

Henry Wismayer | Aeon | December 24, 2021 | 7,000 words

“Driven by the need for a storied life, I relished the opportunity for endless travel. Is that a moment in time, now over?”

The Lessons of Uzbekistan’s Lost Sea

Henry Wismayer | The Washington Post Magazine | August 29, 2022 | 4,173 words

“One of history’s worst environmental disasters is now a tourist attraction. What can it teach us about the fate of humankind?”

Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.