Meaning Lab
Meaning Lab
#102: Awe is the emotional component of meaning (feat. Dacher Keltner)
#102: Awe is the emotional component of meaning (feat. Dacher Keltner)
I'm used to thinking about meaning as a product of thought. But it's also a feeling, too.

I collect concise definitions of the good life. There’s something I really like about the idea of having a one sentence mission statement. It’s a kind of mantra to check in with from time to time to make sure you’re making decisions based on what really matters and not the more immediate, but also more fleeting, worries of the day. My personal favorite, which I recently referenced in a post on meaning and context, comes from the philosopher Bertrand Russell: “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.”

One of the things that I think makes for a useful good-life definition is that it puts the focus beyond oneself. One of my first Meaning Lab posts was about an idea which I called the Off-Policy Theory of Happiness, with the claim being that the most efficient way to become unhappy is to spend a lot of time really concerned with your own happiness. You need to aim at something else, something bigger. Your personal well-being—in terms of general satisfaction, at least; maybe joy, rather than happiness—will come as a by-product. And I think that element is present, perhaps in a subtle way, in the two-word definition of the good life given by my guest today. It is: “Find awe.”

Dacher Keltner is a Professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. His research has spanned questions about which emotions we have, why we have them, and what we do with them. His latest book is Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. And in the introduction to it, he proposes that awe might be at the center of a life well lived.

At first, I thought this might be taking things a bit too far. I mean, awe: I could certainly see it as being an interesting target of psychological study, but as epicentral to the good life? Really? As I got further into Dacher’s argument, I realized there’s a lot more subtlety and a lot more complexity here than I initially gave it credit for.

As Dacher argues in his book, and in this conversation, awe is so important because it is the emotional component of meaning. It is what we feel when we engage in meaningful behavior. That’s not to say that it’s the only thing we feel, or that there’s a one-to-one mapping. But they’re intrinsically related.

Specifically awe is a recognition of one’s own smallness is the context of something much larger and more profound. As I argue in the meaning and context post referenced above, meaning can only be found by considering something—an activity, an experience, a pursuit, an object, a book, a word—in the appropriate context. It is a figure against a ground, and without proper recognition of that ground the meaning evaporates. The feeling of awe is an emotional signal that we’ve made that connection. I found a lot to consider in this conversation, because I tend to think about meaning not in terms of emotion but in terms of, well, thoughts. I think for anyone who is interested in meaning, there should also be an interest in Dacher’s argument about awe.


Dacher’s new book is Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. It’s out now.

At the end of each episode, I ask my guest about three books that have most influenced their thinking. Here are Dacher’s picks:

(I hope you find something good for your next read. If you happen to find it through the above links, I get a referral fee. Thanks!)

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Meaning Lab

Meaning Lab

Welcome to Meaning Lab, a show about the pursuit of meaning in work, life, and relationships. My name is Cody Kommers, and I've studied cognitive science at UCLA, Harvard, and most recently for my PhD at Oxford. This show is my opportunity to go deeper into understanding how our minds create meaning from the world around us. In each episode, I talk to a scientist, author, or artist about their approach to meaning-making, from language, to productivity, to writing, to travel. It's all fair game, as long as it gets us closer to understanding how we make sense of the world and our place in it.

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Cody Kommers