Finding Awe Amid Everyday Splendor

A new field of psychology has begun to quantify an age-old intuition: Feeling awe is good for us.


We were halfway down the Point Reyes peninsula when Dacher Keltner wandered off-trail. He stopped at an outcrop of granite boulders, where the ground fell away toward Driftwood Beach and the wide, open Pacific beyond. A coastal fog bank was moving in, shrouding the horizon. Wisps of condensation swept up and over the promontory, bathing my legs in cold air. Out west, the sun was starting to drop into the ocean, its beams casting a wide band of light on the water. The reflected shards glimmered through the vapor in the far distance, producing an irresistible illusion of endlessness.

“I love that highway of sun,” I said to Keltner, who was standing on my left, looking out to sea.

“Yeah, that’s very nice,” he replied in a slow, portentous way, which I took to imply that I should stop commentating. And then we stood in silence for a long time. 

“I’m 60, so I need to pee,” Keltner said suddenly, striding off down the slope. “It’s the great antagonist of awe in later life!”

With that, the moment passed. Where did I go in that pregnant quiet before the intervention of Keltner’s bladder? Something had certainly stirred. Watching the interplay of sun and sea, I’d felt enlivened, gently electrified. The ocean, in its immensity and unseen depths, seemed to harbor hidden meaning. 

It was at this point that a traditional account of a brush with awe might end. There were feelings. They were deep, they were ungraspable. God knows why. But I knew that Keltner was going to argue that I’d just experienced something altogether more tangible…..