Transformative Awe

Politics. Oy! In a 2017 column, Arthur Brooks noted that:
“In the past couple of years, I have noticed a happiness pattern that relates to politics. Namely, the people most in the know tend to be unhappier than those who pay less attention.”
Seeking confirmation of this anecdotal impression, Arthur Brooks looked at data from the 2014 General Social Survey and found that:
“Even after controlling for income, education, age, gender, race, marital status and political views, being ‘very interested in politics’ drove up the likelihood of reporting being ‘not too happy’ about life by about eight percentage points.”
Your first appropriately skeptical thought should be: this doesn’t tell us which way the causality might flow. Does attention to politics cause unhappiness? Or does being unhappy cause attention to politics? Or does some third factor incline a person to both? In this case there is some reason for thinking there’s a good chance that the answer actually is “A” – attention to politics causes unhappiness.

Psychologists say that a perceived “external locus of control” brings unhappiness. When we believe that external forces (such as politics) have a large impact on our life, it’s harder to be happy. In surveys of undergraduates, “those who associated their destinies with luck and outside forces” had “worse academic achievement, more stress, and higher levels of depression” than “those who believed they were more in control of their lives.”

Of course, sometimes there really is an external locus of control. If your immigration status is changed, or you lose your health insurance through no fault of your own, or your state decides to repeal your reproductive rights, those are external forces beyond your control. Sometimes, though, politics doesn’t have to affect us as much as we let it. When consuming political news, the key question is: is this information you will do something with? Will it help you vote responsibly? Will you write to your congress person about it? Are you choosing which organizations to contribute to with your money and time, and the information will be useful in making that decision?

If you put the information to some use – if you do something with it -- then the ball is back in the court of your control. But if you’re just consuming political news and commentary compulsively, immersing yourself in “gratuitous information and stimuli, particularly on social media” then I’m here to tell you, you need to let that go. You will be happier.

As we consider happiness, and what sort of attitudes are conducive to happiness, joy, or well-being, it may be helpful to look at this claim, which seems supported by studies in the last couple decades, that conservatives are happier than liberals. Jaime Napier and John Jost argue that rising inequality has exacerbated the happiness gap between conservatives and liberals – basically, because liberals find inequality distressing while conservatives aren’t bothered.

A rather different analysis comes from professors Barry Schlenker and Bonnie Le. They argue that conservative attitudes about personal agency, binding moral foundations, and the Protestant Work ethic help keep conservatives well-adjusted and happy, while liberals have grown increasingly secular, less religious, less likely to be married, more likely to see morals as relative, and more likely to see problems as systemic and therefore under an external locus of control.

The search for meaning may, overall, be a factor. Professor of Psychology Michael Steger writes that
“in the United States, searching for meaning is associated with more distress -- never truly knowing if you have the right answer to life’s grandest questions. Conservatives, especially religiously committed people, score very low on ‘search for meaning,’ implying that they have their meaning and do not need to look any further.”
I believe that we can be, and that it’s good to be, searchers for meaning. I believe that moral principles are cultural products – and that what I see as right is subject to modification and revision. I have answered a calling to minister to a congregation of people who are, on average, more curious about new things and more open to new experience, than the general population. I believe that there really are systemic injustices that need to be systemically addressed. And, yes, that’s distressing. But I also believe that people like me – and, dare I say, like us – can be happier than people without these attributes.

I don’t think that distrust of difference or delusions of certainty and absolute moral truths are prerequisite for happiness. For starters, the supposed gap is mostly, if not entirely, a product of differential bias in self-reporting. Tom Jacobs writes that:
“Researchers report that conservatives are more likely to proclaim they are happy. But liberals are more likely to provide clues indicating they’re experiencing actual joy, including the words they choose to use, and the genuineness of their smiles.”
Scholars Sean Wojcik and Peter Ditto find that political conservatives have “a strengthened tendency to evaluate the self in an overly positive way.”

That said, there are ways we can cultivate more happiness, joy, and well-being – ways that don’t require being any less curious, any less open to new experience, any less multiculturally sensitive, any less questing for meaning, or any less aware of systemic problems. Returning again to Arthur Brooks, he urges that we invest in four things every day: faith, family, community, and work that serves others and creates value. In other words, we cultivate our own happiness by thinking less about our selves and more about others and the Earth and cosmos.

Faith. The fact that you’re here [in a UU congregation on a Sunday morning] is a big plus. Overall, liberals may be less likely to go in for congregational life, but many do, and many reflect often and deeply on their place within the widest context of meaning. That’s faith.

Overall, liberals may be less slightly likely to be married, be in a connected family, and less likely to be engaged in their community, but many are. And when they are, they are happier. A 2021 YouGov survey showed slightly greater reported happiness for conservatives,
“but once we control for marriage, parenthood, family satisfaction, religious attendance and community satisfaction, the ideological gap in happiness disappears.”
Then add in that self-reporting bias differential, and now who’s ahead? It’s the ones who, while cultivating connection to faith, family, community and work that serves others and creates value, also face life with curiosity, openness to learning and new experiences, who do not hole up within felt certainties to avoid searching for meaning, who recognize the contingency of their cultural values, yet live by them nonetheless even while interested in and appreciative of other cultures, and who, yes, also face forthrightly and open-eyed the systemic forces that need to be changed.

And there’s one other thing that significantly brings joy into our lives: experiences of awe and wonder. Maybe that fits under faith – and maybe it doesn’t – though I do think that when awe is apprehended within a faith context, or when faith is apprehended within a context of awe and wonder, then faith and awe mutually reinforce each other.

Studies in which participants are asked to keep a daily diary writing the feelings and emotions experienced each day find that, on average, “people experience awe two to three times a week.” With cultivation, we can experience awe more often and more profoundly. Awe has this amazing power: you don’t adapt to it. You never become inured to it.

Studies of happiness find that people whose salaries are doubled experience significant happiness – at first. Unless their original salary was below the poverty line, six months later they are no happier than they were before the raise. People who win the lottery: six months later, they are LESS happy than they were before they bought the ticket – because they’ve lost touch with the little ways they used to find satisfaction and joy.

At the other end of the spectrum, people who are in an accident and rendered quadriplegic, are, as you’d expect, quite unhappy about that – again, at first. Six months later, they are almost as happy as they were before the accident. We are amazingly adaptable. We can get used to just about anything. But not to awe. Experiences of awe leave us more impressionable, not less, for the next experience of awe.

Dacher Keltner is professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. He has a new book out titled Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life. Keltner says that “awe is the feeling of being the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world.” “Transcend your current understanding of the world,” I take it, means you are pulled out of your usual, habitual, self-protective strategies – what Keltner calls your “default self.” The default self thinks about “how you are distinct from others, independent, in control.” The default self thinks about how to get and keep a competitive advantage. It “keeps you on track in achieving your goals and urges you to rise in the ranks of the world.” The default self is what Aldous Huxley was referring to when he wrote of “the interfering neurotic who, in waking hours, tries to run the show.” The default self is the panoply of ego defense mechanisms that you deploy throughout your day to keep your world under control. It’s the set of strategies you’ve developed for getting or keeping what you like and avoiding or ending what you don’t like.

The default self is important – you need it. The importance of the default self is especially amplified in modern Western society. The individualism and materialism of current dominant culture puts a particular premium on what the default self does. But even in indigenous cultures thousands of years ago much more oriented toward the collective, the default self had an important role. The problem is that the default self is focused on you. The default self is convinced that you are the center of the universe around which everything else orbits.

But our happiness comes from decentering the self, orienting toward something bigger than ourselves: the team, the family, the community, the country, the earth – values and ideals that are meaningful not just to you. Keltner writes:
“When our default self reigns too strongly, though, and we are too focused on ourselves, anxiety, rumination, depression, and self-criticism can overtake us. An overactive default self can undermine the collaborative efforts and goodwill of our communities. Many of today’s social ills arise out of an overactive default self, augmented by self-obsessed digital technologies. Awe, it would seem, quiets this urgent voice of the default self.”
We experience awe in nature: a vast star-filled night sky on a clear night far from city lights; a mountain top vista; the ocean, the early blossoms heralding the coming of spring. We are awed by music and by visual design, by spiritual and religious experience, by being in the presence of birth – and in the presence of death. We can be awestruck by a moment of epiphany.

But nothing so reliably and strongly awes us as other people. Other people evoke our awe in two ways. First, being in a group in a moment of what Keltner calls collective effervescence evokes awe. Such collective effervescence can come from group dances, being on a smoothly flowing team, marching and chanting in a crowd, or congregational hymn singing.

The other way other people awe us is when we behold them acting courageously. When your eight-year-old steps forward to do that thing that the night before they were in tears of anxiety about having to do – and they pull it off – are you not awed? When you know it’s taking all the courage they can muster – and they muster it – is that not as awesome as it gets?

Consider experiences of awe we can get from films. Those nature documentaries with David Attenborough can certainly do it. But they probably don’t do it as powerfully as Schindler’s List did. Beholding people acting courageously is our deepest wellspring awe.

Whenever we step into awe, we shrink or set aside that default self. As the saying goes, a person who is wrapped up in themselves makes a pretty small package. Through awe, we step into a larger space.

Consider the awe walk practice that Keltner and Virginia Sturm developed. Here are the instructions:
“1. Tap into your childlike sense of wonder. Young children are in an almost constant state of awed since everything is so new to them. During your walk, try to approach what you see with fresh eyes, imaging that you’re seeing it for the first time. Take a moment in each walk to take in the vastness of things, for example in looking at a panoramic view or up close at the detail of a leaf or flower.

2. Go somewhere new. Each week, try to choose a new location. You’re more likely to feel awe in a novel environment where the sights and sounds are unexpected and unfamiliar to you. That said, some places never seem to get old, so there’s nothing wrong with revisiting your favorite spots if you find that they consistently fill you with awe. The key is to recognize new features of the same old place.”
With these instructions, Keltner and Sturm
“assembled two groups of participants....In the control condition participants were randomly assigned to engage in a vigorous walk once a week for eight weeks, with no mention of awe. In the awe walk condition, once a week...participants followed the instructions to go on mini awe journeys. All participants reported on their happiness, anxiety, and depression and took selfies out on their walks.
The study found three significant results. First, the awe walk participants felt more awe with each passing week – confirming, as noted, that we don’t get used to awe; we don’t get inured to it; rather, just the opposite, our susceptibility to it increases with practice.

Second, the awe walk participants, over time, felt less anxiety and depression. The smiles displayed in the selfies they were instructed to take slowly began to appear less plastic and more genuinely joyful.

And third, something else about those selfies. They gave striking visual evidence of reduced self-centeredness. As the weeks went by the selfies taken by the awe walk participants “increasingly included less of the self, which over time drifted off to the side, and more of the outside environment.” They stretched their arms out a little further to make their faces a little smaller, and the face move down into a corner of the frame, thus revealing more of the surrounding world. It probably wasn’t even conscious, but they were feeling more awe, more joy, and, with that, it just started feeling right to give less centrality to the self. It just felt appropriate to what they were feeling to decenter themselves.

Other research has shown that when people are asked to draw themselves and write “me” next to their drawing, the size of the drawn self and how large you write “me” are pretty good measures of how self-focused the individual is. Building on this research, Yang Bai camped out at Yosemite National Park.
“Over the course of a few days she approached more than 1,100 travelers at a lookout at the side of Route 140. That lookout offers an expansive view of Yosemite Valley, a natural wonder that led Teddy Roosevelt to observe, ‘It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.’”
She asked the travelers to draw a picture of themselves and label it, “me.” A second group of participants were approached at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and likewise asked to draw and label themselves.

The people who were in a context of awe – overlooking Yosemite Valley – drew themselves a lot smaller, and also tended to draw themselves off to the side of the paper, and wrote the label “me” smaller. Awe decenters the default self, pulls us out of our ego preoccupations.

So put down the newspaper, turn off the TV or radio news – and if you’re getting political information from Twitter or Facebook, definitely turn that off. All that does is cater to the default self’s interests. Go out for an awe walk instead. It’s good for you, and it’s a part of slower life, which, as today’s practice pointer will explain, is also good for the planet.

Blessed be. Amen.

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