Elena is a gate agent at a large international airport. Most of the time, she is too busy with the hustle and bustle of daily tasks to reflect on the broader purpose of her work. Yet occasionally, when she looks at the flight pattern map, she is struck by the fact that she plays a small but meaningful role in a massive, complex system that transports millions of travelers all around the world.
Martin, who works for a landscaping company, spends most of his time outside engaged in challenging physical labor. Though the work can be difficult, he likes when his days start early, because he has the chance to appreciate the quiet peacefulness of nature at dawn.
The emotion of awe has become an increasingly popular topic of interest for social science researchers over the past two decades. We often think of awe as a momentous, all-encompassing emotion that can only happen on rare occasions in one’s life, such as when we visit a natural wonder like the Grand Canyon or witness the birth of a child. However, milder forms of awe also exist and can be elicited with greater frequency and less effort, through experiences such as exposure to nature, feeling a sense of mindfulness or presence, or learning something new and perspective-shifting. A small but growing body of research makes the case that these milder forms of awe can and should be elicited in the context of work.
Several years ago, I conducted interviews with 30 professional scientists to find out whether, and in what ways, awe played a role in their work. Three key findings emerged from this research. The first was that the participants defined awe as having a deep association with the process of scientific discovery: their definitions and examples of awe in science were largely derived from new realizations or “a-ha moments”. Some of these moments came from big conceptual understandings, like scientists who described being floored by learning about complex ideas like the genome or relativity for the first time. Notably, however, the examples that were top of mind for most participants and that seemed most powerful came from their own personal experiences of discovery.
The second finding was that participants’ awe experiences were connected to their membership within the scientific community. In talking about their moments of discovery, participants recognized that their work was contributing to a larger body of knowledge, even if it was in a very small way. Even though many of these scientists valued the experience of briefly being the only person on earth to know something, ultimately, they also derived awe from the opportunity to share their findings and participate in the broader scientific enterprise, not just within their own department or discipline, but as part of a vast human endeavor that has been carried out all over the world, across thousands of years.