The Psychiatric Best Of: In Awe of Awe

Why might awe be so important now?

awe

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PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE DAILY NEWS

If one had to pick out the “best”—meaning most important—emotion over 2022, several might come to mind including fear, relief, and anger, the anger that signified “The Year We Lost It,” according to the New York Times yesterday.1 These seem to be commonly evoked in regard to the pandemic and its fluctuating risks, as well as our societal divisiveness.

The Greater Good Magazine: Science-Based Insights for a Meaningful Life had another suggestion. In its article from December 14th, “The Top 10 Insights from the ‘Science of a Meaningful Life’ in 2022,” it picked another: awe.2 I would pick it, too, and sort of did so in our weekly video of October 5, 2002, titled “A Day and a Year of Awe.”

The sense of awe is hard to define but generally refers to an overwhelming sense of wonder. Although it is not referring to the more routine use of the word “awesome,” even the word awesome reflects something felt to be positive.

Why might awe be so important now? Though long ignored in research, recent studies confirm the health and mental health benefits of awe, including reducing the inflammation that is associated with chronic diseases, more happiness, more humility, and, yes, less anger.

The obstacles to feeling awe are taking things for granted and not searching for awe. Of course, a sense of awe cannot be constant, otherwise it would interfere with daily functioning.

Yet, its advantage is that people can put themselves in situations where they may be more likely to experience awe, a sort of self-help therapeutic process. Although there are such situations, like grasping the beauty and importance of sunrises and sunsets, there is much individual variation. Once one finds what evokes awe, it can be practiced.

Awe can also be part of psychiatric treatment. In psychodynamic psychotherapy, providing the right interpretation at the right time, sometimes described as a lightbulb coming on, can evoke awe in both the patient and the therapist. Medication wise, psychedelics, though not yet approved for general clinical usage, have long been reported to potentially produce a state of awe with the right dose in the right supportive setting.

Fortunately, such feelings of awe can also be evoked through memories of prior occurrences. Those memories can include the current celebrations of light—Hanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa—which lend themselves to the possibility of awe. No wonder that finding awe in the remainder of 2022 and making a 2023 resolution for more awe is an under-appreciated and underused emotional goal.

An awe a day can help keep the psychiatrist away!

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.

References

1. Sternberg A. The year we lost it. The New York Times. December 17, 2022. Accessed December 19, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/17/style/the-year-we-lost-it.html

2. Newman KM, Smith JA, Suttie J, et al. The top 10 insights from the “science of a meaningful life” in 2022. Greater Good Magazine. December 14, 2022. Accessed December 19, 2022. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_top_10_insights_from_the_science_of_a_meaningful_life_in_2022

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