Feeling small, in awe of nature, makes people more generous Monument Valley (Thinkstock)
Feeling small, in awe of nature, makes people more generous
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From the majestic towers of Monument Valley to the stars painted on the ceiling of Grand Central Station, awe-inspiring wonders are all around. Sometimes taking a moment to stop and appreciate something like the Grand Canyon or a clear, starry night can make you feel like a tiny part of a massive universe swirling around. That sensation of being a small speck might actually make you a kinder, more generous person.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines awe. It is "a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder." Now comes the research. It was done by teams from the University of California Berkeley and UC Irvine. They found that experiencing awe might make people help each other out more.
 
"Our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function." So said Paul Piff in a statement. He is an assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at UC Irvine. "By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others."
 
After exposing participants to images of nature (and video clips from the BBC series Planet Earth), Piff and his team asked questions. The researchers measured ethical behavior. And they measured generosity. Those who reported feeling a sense of awe or recalled a time when they felt awe demonstrated more ethical behavior as opposed to someone who felt pride. This is according to Adam Hoffman, writing for the Greater Good Science Center.
 
This wasn't just about pretty images of animals. After all, awe is defined partly by the fear one feels in the face of something larger than themselves. In fact, the same generous behavior was observed in people who were shown scenes of natural disasters. That's according to Hoffman. Whether it was watching scenes of the Amazonian rainforest or a violent volcanic eruption, participants were more willing to share resources with each other afterwards.
 
Awe doesn't just inspire ethical behavior. Recent studies suggest that experiencing awe may boost your immune system. And it could make you feel more creative, too. It can even make you feel that you have more time to get things done.
 
"When people experience awe they really want to share that experience with other people, suggesting that it has this particularly viral component to it," Piff tells Hoffman. "Maybe this is yet another way that awe binds people together - by causing people to want to share their positive experiences collectively with one another."

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why do we think of nature as “big?”
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (21)
  • reidi-4-bar
    4/21/2016 - 08:09 p.m.

    When you experience an amazing sight of nature it can make you feel small in a big world and it can actually make you kinder and more generous. Scientists say that feeling awe can make people help others out more. I think it is cool that a certain experience can make people more generous.

  • mayaw-6-bar
    4/21/2016 - 10:50 p.m.

    We think of nature as "big" because compared to us, humans, we are very small. In paragraph 1, the article states that, "(looking at a) starry night can make you feel like a tiny part of a massive universe swirling around. That sensation of being a small speck might actually make you a kinder, more generous person." When we feel small, we are usually around something big, such as nature. Therefore, humans think of nature as "big" because compared to ourselves, we are extremely small, and nature is huge. I liked this article because it explained my own feelings when I am in nature. I have been to the national parks mentioned, and at first I didn't want to go, but when I was there, it felt amazing. I felt really small.

  • lucasddd-3-bar
    4/21/2016 - 11:08 p.m.

    We think of nature as big because there is so much of it and about it we do not know about, and some nature is more powerful then us, for example, a volcano eruption.
    This article was interesting, and I like to go out exploring nature because it is extremely beautiful.

  • matthewp-6-bar
    4/21/2016 - 11:56 p.m.

    We think of nature as "big" because compare to ourselves and our bodies nature is so huge and goes for miles. Like when people stand on top of a mountain they feel tiny because of their view of the world/nature and of the size of the mountain. This is shown in the article by,"Sometimes taking a moment to stop and appreciate something like the Grand Canyon or a clear, starry night can make you feel like a tiny part of a massive universe swirling around." My opinion about this article is I feel tiny to nature and it makes me give respect to nature and the environment.

  • shaelyng-ver
    4/22/2016 - 08:51 a.m.

    I never knew that awe could boost your immune system, that is so cool!

  • daytonb-3-bar
    4/22/2016 - 10:52 a.m.

    Humans think of nature as big because it really makes up everything around us including other humans. Even the sky we can't even imagine the infinite space beyond us and here we are on a small rock that to us seems so big and all you can think or feel or wonder is that "awe" feeling, and that to me is very powerful.

  • swise-wim
    4/22/2016 - 12:49 p.m.

    We think of nature as "big" because the world is such a huge celestial body compared to humans. When people experience the sight of the Grand Canyon it humbles you because of its capacity. The article says, "...a starry night can make you feel like a tiny part of a massive universe swirling around." Some nature is even unknown to us; the thought is overwhelming.

  • noahf-3-bar
    4/23/2016 - 01:17 a.m.

    Humans think of nature as "big" because we are very small compared to everything else. Compare humans to most animals and we are smaller, and when you take into account nature, space, planets etc we are even smaller.

    I found this article interesting because I never realised how small humans actually are.

  • tiernanj-obr
    4/25/2016 - 02:43 p.m.

    Why do we think nature is big? It is because, if you think about it we are just a speck of almost-nothing. We think of it as big, because humans are always use to being the top. We think we are the smartest, and we think we are always the top of the food-chain. But when we look at nature's wonders, we feel small and we then realize that we are not even close to imagining what all of nature is.

  • oliviam-6-bar
    4/25/2016 - 09:47 p.m.

    Nature is thought of as being "big" for many reasons. For one, the earth is a big place. 70% of it is covered in water. That is 70% of the earth we do not know about. Even then, the dry land is hard to understand also. And we have outer space to work about too! When does it end? The universe is way too big to comprehend by one, or even a whole team, of people.

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