Wisdom in the News

Awe & flow:

How to reason wisely

Do you remember what you felt when you first saw that breathtaking landscape? It was that sensation of awe—a mixed feeling of reverence, respect, and wonder. Or how about that feeling when you were completely absorbed at work? It was that experience of flow when you felt engaged while equally challenged and productive.

At some point in life, we may all have experiences that move us to focus on things beyond the self. How might these types of self-transcendent experiences affect us? Can inducing these sorts of experiences in awe or flow impact wisdom? Researchers at the University of Chicago Center for Practical Wisdom set out to understand these questions in their recent paper Going beyond ourselves: The role of self-transcendent experiences in wisdom, published in the journal Cognition and Emotion.

Dr. Fan Yang of the Human Nature and Potentials Lab, along with APEX Lab’s doctoral student Yena Kim and Wisdom Center Founder Dr. Howard C. Nusbaum, evaluated the interplay of awe and flow, wise reasoning, and epistemic humility (being able to admit the strengths and limits of one’s own knowledge). They were interested in understanding the role of self-transcendence in wisdom.

Awe is an emotional response to perceived vastness that challenge one’s current understanding and makes people feel a sense of smallness. Flow is another self-transcendent experience. In the 90’s, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, popularized the term flow state –– the positive mental state of being completely absorbed and focused on a challenging and interesting activity (see this video on maintaining flow from BBC Ideas).

First author Yena Kim notes, “When in flow, your feeling of self is smaller, and you are focused in, almost zoomed in, on your activity. While in a moment of awe, you are diverting your attention away from yourself, zooming out and stepping outside of your own bubble. While it may seem like zooming in and zooming out are opposites, they complement each other in understanding the self. We find the effects of these experiences can help you be wiser—more inclined to take others’ perspectives, have humility, and be more empathetic.”

The research article outlines three studies, progressing from Study 1 as a correlational study on people’s dispositions to Study 2 as a reflection on personal experiences to Study 3 with inducing experiences of awe and flow directly. The progression of the three studies starts with establishing concepts with correlation to demonstrating causation.

Reports of Study 1 demonstrated that people’s dispositional tendencies to feel awe and flow uniquely predicted their wise reasoning abilities and epistemic humility. The effects of awe and flow held even when taking into account dispositional happiness. Based on their findings, the authors’ suggested the effects of awe and flow experiences cannot be attributed to positive affect alone.

Their second study asked people to write about personal experiences of awe, flow, amusement, and mundane situations to understand how these memories might impact people’s willingness to express wisdom and epistemic humility. Consistent with Study 1 results, they found higher awe and flow ratings predicted wisdom (measured by reasoning about a complex, difficult situation). Again, higher amusement ratings did not predict either wisdom or epistemic humility. However, they did not find that recalling awe and flow led to higher wisdom levels than recalling mundane situations. Thus, while both types of self-transcendent emotions are related to wisdom, simply recalling certain moments of awe or flow was not enough to causally affect wisdom or humility.


From here, the researchers decided to try a more direct approach of producing awe and flow states to study their effects on wise reasoning or epistemic humility. Their third study induced awe by having people watch a BBC planet earth video involving vast nature scenes, and induced flow by having people engage in a creative music composition activity. Their results indicated, when comparing conditions, higher induced awe and flow states (but not higher amusement from watching a funny video) elicited higher wise reasoning and epistemic humility. This analysis revealed a causal effect of awe and flow on wisdom and humility. Dr. Yang said, “Study 3 demonstrates the causal effect that self-transcendence experiences could enable greater wisdom. It shows that even brief self-transcendent experiences can have this effect—which is an easy, low-cost way to enable wisdom.”

Additionally, Study 3 incorporated a willingness to change scale. While past research has documented that people are not willing to become more moral, the authors’ analysis indicated greater feelings of awe and flow led people to be more willing to change their moral character and wisdom. This has implications for how to motivate people to become a better version of themselves.

Taking the three studies together, zooming out in a moment of awe or zooming in during flow might lend itself to enabling you to be more humble, willing to change your opinions, and help you to reason more wisely.

Dr. Yang concludes, “Wisdom is not a mysterious ability that we either have or do not have, but wisdom can be cultivated by having certain experiences. In particular, self-transcendent experiences—awe and flow—enable people to express greater wisdom in their reasoning.”

Ultimately, if you are hoping to make a wise decision on something, it might be time to get out to explore a good museum, take a nature hike, or shift into that flow state during a particularly productive day and then contemplate your issue on hand. It will not be enough to remember a time when you felt awe or flow if you are hoping to make a wise decision. However, if you activate awe or flow, you may be motivated to evaluate the entire situation outside of your own personal buy in. You never know, you may have further growth by having more frequent self-transcendent experiences. The Great Good Science Center has some resources, such as this article on how to cultivate awe, and TED Ideas has a recent article on how to tap into a flow state.

Step outside of yourself by zooming in or zooming out for a few moments and you may find you are motivated and likely to make the wise choice.

Click the citation to read their research article in detail:

Kim, Y., Nusbaum, H. C., & Yang, F. (2022). Going beyond ourselves: the role of self-transcendent experiences in wisdom. Cognition and Emotion, 1-19.