The Existentialist philosopher Camus said, “Life should be lived to the point of tears.” He was onto something. The pull towards transcendence reveals a fundamental human need to marvel, to become overwhelmed, to be flooded by cascading waves of meaning. In Religion for Atheists, the philosopher Alain De Botton wrote that secular institutions need to do a better job at creating spaces for non-believers to experience a kind of “mindgasmic,” aesthetic sublime. Human beings don't need to believe in God in order to experience this sort of nourishment—the symphonic beauty of cathedrals or rocket ships will do just fine. But why does the secular world require spaces for reverential awe?
In it, researchers described awe as an experience of such perceptual vastness that you have to reconfigure your mental schemata to accommodate the experience. We are “reset” by the sheer overwhelmingness of awe, purged in a perfect consummation with perfection itself.
But there’s more. The Stanford researchers also found that these regular incidences of awe, not only provided a kind of necessary catharsis, but also left subjects as fundamentally better people. The study reported increased feelings of well-wing, increased compassion, and increased altruism.
This revelation: that moments of awe make us better people, have provided a wonderful reference point, a scientific justification for my own existential yearnings for ecstasy and bliss. They are the foundations of an entire way of life: Chasing rhapsodies makes us nicer. Seeking inspiration is really seeking a better self.
This piece is part of a series sponsored by The GAP in which members of the 2013 GOOD 100 share important lessons they learned this past calendar year. Subscribe today to GOOD Magazine and receive the 2014 GOOD 100 edition this coming Spring.