Help Your Students Find Awe

One of the things I have noticed over the decades of teaching is the rising stress, anxiety, and perfectionism in students. Learning, which takes effort, should be at the very least enjoyable, if not joyful, especially if you are learning something you have chosen to spend your life doing. So, I have found myself continually looking for ways to help students reduce their stress and anxiety and help them become effective, adaptable, confident lifelong learners. 

Recently, I came across the work of Dascher Keltner, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, a researcher in the science of human emotion, and the faculty director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. Dr. Keltner and others have been studying this new and evolving field of the science of awe and how it can improve health and well-being, including its role in helping students learn.

What is awe?

According to Dr. Keltner, awe is the feeling we get in the presence of something profound and vast that transcends our current understanding of the world. It happens when we encounter or experience something we don’t understand or can’t comprehend (Keltner, 2023). Other words commonly used to describe this feeling include amazement, surprise, and wonder (Levasseur, 2023). While children typically experience awe or are wonderstruck, this experience fades with age, and awe is rarely experienced by adults (Breines, 2016).

What does the research say about awe?

It turns out that feeling awe is actually good for our overall well-being. A main component of awe is that we feel connected to something greater than ourselves and more connected to others (Breines, 2016). Research found that experiencing awe can increase life satisfaction and provide a sense of slowing time down, making people feel less impatient (Rudd, Vohns & Aaker, 2012). Another study found that people who experienced awe regularly had lower levels of tissue interleukin-6, a proinflammatory cytokine associated with heart disease (Stellar et al., 2015). High levels of cytokines are associated with poorer health (Anwar, 2015). In an experiment done with 200 adults, those who experienced positive emotions, especially awe, wonder, and amazement, had the lowest cytokine interleukin 6 levels (Stellar et al., 2015). It was posited that awe may help people cope better with stress by encouraging curiosity and exploration instead of withdrawal and isolation (Breines, 2016). Awe has also been linked to increased humility and greater generosity (Piff et al., 2015).

Can feeling awe help our students?

Based on the emerging evidence from the research on awe, several studies have focused on its effect on learning and academic outcomes. The effect of positive emotions on academic outcomes has already been supported by research (Dixson et al., 2018). In a 2018 study done by Anderson et al., they explored the relationship of awe to academic outcomes through its relationship with curiosity. Previous studies have shown that a tendency to be curious and explore is linked to better intellectual outcomes (Raine et al., 2002). A 2018 study done by Gottlieb et al. showed science learning was enhanced in students with a disposition toward experiencing awe. Awe was also linked to promoting creativity and the systematic processing of information (Anderson et al., 2018). As a result of these studies, the potential that experiencing awe may enhance cognitive capabilities that foster learning suggests that providing and encouraging real-world experiences of awe with students may support better learning outcomes.

How can we provide and encourage awe?

As I mentioned, I am always looking for ways to help students navigate their stress. I want to provide them with information and experiences that they can share with their patients. While we encourage students to find something that helps them reduce their anxiety, such as yoga, mindful breathing, journaling, forest bathing, or meditating, to name a few, consider adding finding awe. Although most people associate the feelings of awe when in nature, almost anything or any environment can engage awe because it is a change of attitude that comes with looking at something with a fresh set of eyes. For example, taking the time to notice the intricate colors and design of a butterfly’s wings, looking closely at the architecture of a building, watching a sunset, visiting a museum, and so on. Part of this is simply teaching students about awe and what we currently know about how it benefits our well-being. However, it can also be intentionally used, especially when students are particularly stressed.

A high school teacher experimented with his students to see if mindful immersion in nature would cultivate awe. He engaged his students over the course of nine months in “awe walks.” The walks were less than a mile and included stops for contemplation and reflection, focusing on being present in the moment. Students were to keep a journal of their experiences. What he learned from his student’s writings was that the walks were “meaningful because they allow us to slow down, reflect, enjoy the moment, and refocus and reset.” (Levasseur, 2023) 

The folks at the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley, California, devote their work to synthesizing hundreds of evidence-based scientific studies focused on helping all of us live a happier, more meaningful life ( As such, they provide a resource page with five awe practices, some of which can be used in class.  

Intentionally engaging awe helps slow us down, shifts our attention to seeing with fresh eyes, fuels curiosity, and refocuses our relationship with the world (Levasseur, 2023). We live in a fractured, overstimulated, reductionist, dog-eat-dog world. Awe can hit the pause button and help remind us and our students that taking time to stop and smell the roses really does have healthy benefits.

Five Awe Practices:


Anderson, C. L., Dixson, D. D., Monroy, M., & Keltner, D. (2020). Are awe-prone people more curious? The relationship between dispositional awe, curiosity, and academic outcomes. Journal of Personality, 88, 762-779. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12524.

Anwar, Y. (2015). Can awe boost health? Greater Good Science Center Magazine, February 12.

Breines, J. (2016). Four awe-inspiring activities. Greater Good Science Center Magazine, March 8.

Disxon, D. D., Anderson, C. L. Rigney, A. M., Neimasik, M. A., & Potte, A. (2018). Positivity in school: How positive traits relate to productive school attributes. Manuscript submitted to Journal of Happiness Studies.

Gottlieb, S., Keltner, D., & Lombrozo, T. (2018). Awe as a scientific emotion. Cognitive Science, 42, 2081-2094. https://

Keltner, D. (2023). Awe: The new science of everyday wonder and how it can transform your life. Penguin Press, New York.

Levasseur, A. (2023). How awe walks helped my students slow down. Greater Good Science Magazine, September 8.

 Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(6), 883-899. 10.1037/pspi0000018

Raine, A., Reynolds, C., Venables, P. H., & Mednick, S. A. (2002). Stimulation seeking and intelligence: A prospective longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 663-674.

Rudd, M., Vohs, K. D., Aaker, J. (2012). Awe expands people’s perception of time, alters decision-making, and enhances well-being. Psychological Science 23(10), 1130-1136 doi:10.1177/0956797612438731

Stellar, J.E., John-Henderson, N., Anderson, C. L., Gordon, A. M., McNeil, G. D., & Keltner, D. (2015). Positive affect and markers of inflammation: Discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammation cytokines. Emotion, 15(2). 129-133.


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