Finding Compassion in Nature: A New Study on Awe and Generosity

Can you remember a time when you looked at the stars and felt so small that it made you feel like a better person? New research published by the American Psychological Association suggests that experiencing naturalistic awe decreases entitlement and increases ethical decision-making. It’s no secret that nature affects our mental wellbeing, but the study finds that naturalistic awe inspires compassion as well as enhances collective concern—all without the assistance of a supreme being.

To test their hypothesis, researchers developed a series of experiments on what inspires awe, how awe facilitates positive behavior, and the distinction between awe-inspired prosocial tendencies and other emotions. In one of their experiments, researches asked participants to spend a minute gazing up at a tree canopy and others to stare at a large building. Afterwards, a disguised experimenter accidentally dropped a box of pens. They found that participants immersed in the glittering tree canopies were more likely to offer assistance than those who had stared at the building. The results of numerous experiments suggest that the feeling of being a minute part of a larger whole inspires compassionate thinking and positive social expressions. Nature allows us to envision our relationship to the wider world and in doing so, demonstrates the importance of benevolence. In addition, this new study questions the relationship between awe and religiosity by means of a short conceptual analysis. Religion, with its prosocial propensities, is often thought to be a catalyst for awe because supreme beings are often described as vast and limitless. These conceptualizations are also characteristic of the feeling one gets from looking at a star-speckled sky or thinking about matter beyond Earth. Well-known American naturalist Ralph Waldo Emerson drew parallels between natural excursions and religious gatherings:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, —no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, —my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, —all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

Emerson was not the first, and surely not the last, to attribute the awe of nature to some sort of deity. Although further research is needed, the study’s short conceptual analysis speculates that awe and the reduction of self-importance are the roots of compassion, not a literal god: “Religious institutions may promote prosociality insofar as they attune individuals to forces more powerful than themselves and are effective conduits of awe.” Even though the belief in a supreme being can result in awe and compassion, the reduction of self-importance may be the cause. So by altering the self-concept, evanescent experiences of awe encourage interest in the welfare of others. The other day I received a short email from a concerned individual. It quoted Psalm 14:1 and read: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.” Yet this study demonstrates morality and contentedness without adherence to a supreme being—or in other words, the very real possibility of being good without a god.