Transcript for What's Wonder? - Jonathan Haidt


Jim Fleming: When's the last time you were wonderstruck? For that matter, what is wonder? We asked social psychologist Jonathan Haidt to help us figure it out. Anne Strainchamps asked Haidt if he had personal reasons for studying awe.


Jonathan Haidt: A personal reason only in that I am an "awe junkie" and I will do anything to experience these emotions, so...


Anne Strainchamps: You said you're an "awe junkie"?


Haidt: Yes.


Strainchamps: Can you define that? What does that mean?


Haidt: Well I guess a junkie is somebody who needs his fix. When I was in my 20s and 30s I needed frequent awe experiences and I would travel around the world alone on one or two month trips, and I really enjoyed traveling alone. It kind of forces you to test yourself and have all these highs and lows, but it had a lot of peaks and a lot of those peaks were - would be climbing a mountain or a tower or just finding a beautiful place. These were the greatest experiences of my life because they were just concentrated, you know, months of awe.


Strainchamps: Jonathan, you're one of the few social psychologists who have spent time studying awe and wonder, which are peak sensations, but what exactly are they?


Haidt: Well, nobody really knows. I was asked to write a review paper on it a number of years ago with my friend and Colleague [unknown name] and we reviewed all the literature we could find on awe in psychology, and that took about ten minutes, and then we said, 'Well, where have people written about awe and self-transcendence and wonder and all these positive, uplifting emotions'. And the answer was mostly in aesthetics and literature and people who study the response we have to beauty.


Strainchamps: Are awe and wonder the same thing, or are they subtly different sensations?


Haidt: I think the best way to think about this is as a family of emotions, but the key thing to keep in mind is that awe always includes an element of fear and dread in the face of gigantic awesome power. So when you look at awe experiences in the Old Testament it's Moses and the burning bush, it's Saul on the road to Damascus, it's Arjuna in the [unkown name] where Christiana gives him a third eye to see the world as it is. In all of these stories, we have a person who encounters the Divine, is blown away, he cannot process it, and then he comes out the other side changed. He is uplifted, he loses all of his old, petty commitments and petty self. And this is why I think there is such interest in awe over the centuries and the millennium, but I think we moderns have lost sight of the fact that awe had this link to fear, terror, and dread, and the beginning of the 18th century, with the rise of aesthetic philosophers Edmund Burke writing on the sublime. We begin to focus more now on awe as 'Wow isn't that beautiful?' Especially in modern America, where awe has come to mean double-plus good, that was really awesome.


Strainchamps: You sound like you think like this is not a good trend.


Haidt: Yea, it trivializes one of the most powerful and transformative human emotions.


Strainchamps: I thought we were talking about experiences that might be a little terrifying, but also sublime, and also ultimately uplifting. You know, experiences that might make us better people.


Haidt: Right. So the way that my colleagues and I think about emotions - because emotions are not discrete, it's not like one moment you have a moment of shame and the next moment you have a feeling of embarrassment, and they're perfectly pure. Rather, there are all these little features or little switches that can be set. And so with the family of emotions related to awe, there are a number of these switches that you can look at. So one is, "Is something physically beautiful? Is there a display of virtue? Is there enough threat or danger?" The key features that [unknown name] and I figured are something has to be vast and there has to be a need for accommodation, which means that your existing mental structures can't fit it in. You have no existing way to process it and this is why you have to grow in some way, you have to change. So when you see yet another beautiful lake, you've seen those before. It's beautiful, but there's no accommodation. But maybe the first time you see, sort of a lake in a volcano or a bubbling volcano, well that leads to something new.


Strainchamps: We've talked about traveling and I think a lot of us find those peak experiences when we travel. You stand in front of the Grand Canyon or the Rocky Mountains or you climb a 10,000 foot peak and you feel awe and wonder. Why is it so much harder to feel when we're back home in our daily lives?


Haidt: Well again it's the issue of awe experiences that require vastness and a need for accommodation. You have to experience something that doesn't fit in your existing mental structures, and it's the actual change, when you're contemplating and taking it in and something in your mind is changing. And that is what I think is so deeply pleasurable. Maybe not for everyone, but for those who are "awe junkies", I think that's what they're after. And, of course, you can't get that on your normal drive to work that you've done a thousand times.


Strainchamps: But on the other hand, I think a lot of us have had the experience that if you slow down in your daily life - you know, you're walking the dog at night and you suddenly really pay attention to the stars - there is wonder right there in our daily lives, isn't there?


Haidt: Yes. That is true, and that is a point made by Buddhists and people who encourage mindfulness and contemplative practices. So I shouldn't say that it's not available, just that most of us tend to do it more when we're traveling when our goal is to have experiences.


Strainchamps: Are there other kinds of categories of experience that tend to produce wonder or awe?


Haidt: Yes. So, I tried to do research on responses to vastness and beauty and showing people all sorts of awe inspiring videos and I didn't get very far. I couldn't really induce it in the lab.


Strainchamps: Wait, you actually brought people into the lab and tried to create an experience of wonder or awe?


Haidt: Well, yea, haven't you ever seen a really good nature video? So, what we did was we stitched together some footage of going up into outer space and vastness and then zooming back down to Earth and going to microscopic levels and changing dimensions and we all loved it and the students loved the video. But it didn't affect them in any way we could measure as would, say, you climb a mountain and you get to the peak. And this I think explains why there's no real research on awe, it's just really hard to get it in the lab.


Strainchamps: Are some people more wired for wonder and awe than others, I mean genetically?


Haidt: Absolutely. Every trait, every human trait, is variable. Walt Whitman was described by one of his admirers, Dr. Buke, "It was evident that these things - such as strolling through a city or through a forest - it was evident that these things gave him a pleasure far beyond what they gave to ordinary people. Until I knew the man, it had not occurred to me that someone could derive so much absolute happiness from these things as he did. Perhaps no man who ever lived liked so many things and disliked so few as Walt Whitman. All natural objects seemed to have a charm for him. All sights and sounds seemed to please him." So, here we have a person who just sees beauty everywhere, not just in nature but in people, in current events, and boy, wouldn't it be great to live like that?


Strainchamps: Are there, then, particular psychological traits that make some people more inclined to experience wonder or awe?


Haidt: Yes. The best established one, the one that we can be pretty confident on, is the trait called "openness to experience". Some people just like to seek out novelty, variety, diversity, and other people like things structured, ordered, and predictable. People who just crave these experiences and will plan their vacations around getting these experiences, those people on average will be higher on "openness to experience".


Strainchamps: So, for those of us who maybe are not hard-wired to experience a great deal of awe or wonder, can we learn to?


Haidt: That's an open question. I don't know of anyone who's studied it. I mean in general it's hard to make people more responsive to an emotion, I mean there are efforts to teach compassion and things like that. But, they often depend on people learning to do things consciously like, "Ok, when you look out at the sunset, think 'where did this come from?'". You can teach people to go through these procedures, but they're just not likely to do it.


Strainchamps: You know, one thing that strikes me as we're talking is that most of these experiences, they're things that happen to you, rather than things you can plan. It's not something that could be deliberately called up. You can't say, "Ok, damn it, I'm going to experience some wonder right now."


Haidt: That's right, and that's a very important point. What's unique about awe and wonder is that typically emotions happen to us to make us act in adaptive ways. So, anger gets your body all ready to fight or flee. Guilt makes you want to apologize. So emotions make us want to do things, and that's one of the weird things about awe and wonder. They make us passive. We're frozen - we don't want to do anything. We just sit and stare, we don't move, our eyes widen, and I think this makes sense if you think of these emotions as sort of cognitive emotions - emotions about taking in new ideas, new sensations, so basically awe just makes us sit there and take in more, and when it's over, something has changed about us.


Strainchamps: Can cynicism and irony coexist with awe and wonder?


Haidt: Well I think someone who is cynical and ironic is capable of experiencing awe and wonder, but I do think they are opposed. Cynicism and irony is an attempt to put yourself over something and awe and wonder are the opposite and they make you fade away.


Strainchamps: We've been talking in almost exclusively secular terms, but aren't we really talking about how we experience the sacred?


Haidt: Absolutely. And that's what got me interested in this because I study morality, that's what I've always done, I couldn't avoid all these claims that feelings of awe and elevation - they are self-transcendent, that is most emotions are about your concerns. Somebody makes a little comment that maybe reflects badly on you, you feel angry, or ashamed, or something. Many of our emotional experiences are so petty and self-serving, but we have this class of emotions that seems to make us forget our petty selves and care about others, care about higher truths. They seem to lift us up. So I think many contemplative practices, religious practices, are designed to foster these self-transcendent experiences. I'm an atheist-Jew, but when I travel I love to go into Catholic churches. They know how to set the stage for an awe experience.


Strainchamps: So, if you were going to draft guidelines to help people feel more wonder in their day-to-day lives, what would you include?


Haidt: Well, first I would want to do years of research, but I think just from my own experience I would offer this one piece of advice, which is: arrange your life so you're not so rushed. I am very aware that I'm just rushing as fast as I can and I am not stopping to smell the roses, I am passing up opportunities for awe right and left. I think time pressure is the greatest killer of these experiences that there is.


Fleming: That's Anne Strainchamps, talking with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. If you follow us on Facebook - and you should - you know that a few weeks ago we asked you to share a moment of wonder with us. We had our resident sound-scapist make them even more wonderful. You'll hear them throughout this hour. Here now are a few more. 


Comments for this interview

Move the lab to the Mugar Omni Theater? (Jake, 09/11/2013 - 12:27pm)

I have to admit, I am not going to feel that much awe watching a nature video on a 55-inch screen. Maybe move the lab to the Boston Museum of Science's Omni IMAX Theater, or a similar environment? If vastness is a requirement, it's hard to beat a five-story screen.

I agree, it might be how a person is wired. (Lisa, 09/08/2013 - 10:38pm)

I took a personality test a few years ago and came out with a label of sorts: my two greatest characteristics are gratitude and appreciation of beauty. I think that perhaps, along with Judy, these two things together bring me to many moments of wonder. I studied nature even as a child, hours spent watching ants or looking into the center of a tulip. I don't think this will ever leave me. And the man in the article is right, you need to stop and breathe and hold still to be enveloped by wonder. It doesn't fit in well with a fast-paced life. It's as if you need to slow down to open your heart to it.

more wonder (judy, 12/04/2012 - 1:08pm)

I believe that I have and always will be wired for wonder. I am 68 years old and as a child in Phila from a poor neighborhood in Phila loved being in Fairmont Park and when I was old enough I would take publoic transportation to places of culture and natural beautiful or uniqueness where I could wander.
This yearning never left me.
I have a sense of wonder als but it isn't my primary impetus.
I can also see how cyncism can kill the drive to spend your time/money on experiences.
All makes sense to me now.