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The upside of feeling small
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The surprising benefits of feeling insignificant

Take a look at the featured image of the Grand Canyon and the one just below. Feel small and insignificant, compared to the enormous, beautiful world around you? If so, you may just have become a kinder person.

Valley of the Ten Peaks, Canadian Rockies

That’s the conclusion of a recent study at the University of California (US) that examined the psychology of awe. Whether you are attending church or looking at a mountain, awe can defined as wonder and amazement at something much bigger than yourself.

Going to church can create a feeling of awe, pictured here is the Cathedral of Christ Church, Oxford University

To test the idea whether awe makes people more altruistic – or kinder – the university’s researchers designed a series of experiments that aimed to make their subjects marvel at the vast world around them and recorded their responses in various psychological tests.

For instance, they showed some awe-inspiring videos from the BBC’s Planet Earth series, with sweeping natural scenes, and asked the subjects to play a game for money. Compared to people watching comedy clips, those viewing the awe-inspiring scenes rated themselves as feeling smaller, and more insignificant – and they tended to be more likely to play fairly.

A scene from BBC's Planet Earth series, this is of the aurora borealis in Alaska

The researchers’ other experiments found that feeling awe can also improve measures of compassion and ethical decision making. For example, people were asked whether they would own up to being undercharged at Starbucks (an American coffee chain); those primed to feel awe said they would be more likely to return the cash.

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean taken onboard the International Space Station

Perhaps we could all do well to remember our tiny place in the Universe. We’re not the centre of the world. We’re just billion-year-old stardust, orbiting a burning ball of gas in the middle of empty space, with no beginning, and no end.

(All images - credit: Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons licence)

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