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Awe and Becoming Larger than Yourself

written by Yee-Ming Tan 23 July 2009

Yee-Ming Tan, MAPP, provides executive coaching services and leadership development training to senior executives. Recent clients include: Cathay Pacific, Goldman Sachs, and Microsoft. Yee-Ming also publishes a series of tools, RippleCards, for people who choose to cultivate greater well-being in their lives.

Her articles are here.

altar-yeemingtanBarbara Fredrickson shared an intervention called positive portfolio during the first Positive Psychology World Congress last month in Philadelphia. I came home inspired to start my own portfolio. In her book “Positivity”, Fredrickson identified ten positive emotions (joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and love) and recommended one portfolio for each emotion.

I set aside last weekend to embark on this project. Where do I start? Hunt and gather all objects first and sort them based on different emotions later? Focus on one emotion only and complete one portfolio at a time? I could feel my anxiety level creeping up while figuring out how to approach this project, which is exactly the opposite of what this intervention is supposed to do! I was about to give up when my eyes caught sight of my personal altar, a 2′ x 1′ wide surface on top of a shelf.

Huh! A positive portfolio right before my eyes!

On the altar are objects of special significance to me. A quick scan of the objects and one emotion jumps out: awe.

According to Fredrickson, awe happens when you come across goodness on a grand scale.  Keltner and Haidt (2003) characterize awe as an experience of vastness and accommodation.

  • Vastness is easy to relate to. We experience awe when Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon on July 20, 1969 and said the historic words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. We feel it when we are standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. We feel it the night America elected its’ first black President.
  • Accommodation occurs when a person perceives something vast (can be physically vast, conceptually vast, such as a grand theory, or socially vast, such as great fame or power), the vast thing cannot be accommodated by the person’s existing mental structures. They often feel fear, admiration, elevation, or a sense of beauty as well. This challenge leads to confusion, disorientation, and sometimes enlightenment and rebirth.

Kailash Mountain

The Big Brown Stone and the Huge High Mountain

In the center of my belongings on the altar on the shelf, the big brown stone is a memento from a three-week trek circumambulating Mount Kailash in western Tibet. Kailash is the most sacred mountain, to Hindu, Buddhist, and Bonist peoples. According to Buddhist sayings, one circle (kora) around the mountain can atone for all the sins committed throughout one’s lifetime. Our journey took us into the hinterlands of the high Himalaya, skirting under Mt. Everest, onto the barren heights of the Tibetan plateau.

Awe – The expanse of the plateau, the jagged snow-capped peaks, the blueness of the sky, the bone shattering cold, everything is experienced at the extreme end of the scale. It is a place for the rugged adventurer as well as the spiritual wanderer. You literally feel overwhelmed by greatness, momentarily transfixed. By comparison, you feel small, humble, insignificance. Then boundaries melt away and you feel part of something larger than yourself.

Prayer Flags

Elevation – According to Haidt (2003), “Elevation is elicited by acts of virtue or moral beauty; it causes warm, open feelings in the chest; and it motivates people to behave more virtuously themselves.” A fellow traveler in our group is a Tibetan woman in her late 60s. This trip was a pilgrimage of a life time for her, to be able to walk around Kailash. Her devotion to her faith was the fuel powering her up every morning for the grueling 8 to 10 hours trek. Despite her frail health, the lack of oxygen on that high altitude, she completed her trek with a single-minded focus and serenity. Inspired by her, I stopped complaining and determined to approach the trek as a journey of discovery – looking inward at myself as well as pushing my outward physical boundary.


Admiration – The altitude, extremes of temperature, lack of rainfall, and the rugged terrain itself, make the Tibetan Plateau perhaps one of the harshest inhabited areas on earth. Yet there are people who made this place their home. The tenacity of human spirit to thrive is so strong, perhaps even stronger, in such environment.

Gratitude – Compared with a materialistic place like Hong Kong where I live, the local Tibetan people have very little in their possession. Everything they owned is worn on their body. I was reminded of how few “things” we really need in life to feel happy. On the other hand, the abject poverty there made me develop a deep appreciation for what I have and what I take for granted. It was in this most inhospitable of places, one encounters the best of human qualities. We were offered food, shelter and kindness by strangers throughout the journey.

You might ask why does awe matter. Vastness inspires awe by making us feel small and humble, yet at the same time, it offers a connection to a bigger whole, compels us to see ourselves as part of something much larger. Experiencing elevation makes us feel lifted up and optimistic about the human family. At the personal level, awe is a self-transcendent emotion. By making ourselves receptive to experiencing awe, we create an opening for change and transformation.



Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Haidt, J. (2003). Elevation and the positive psychology of morality. In C. L. Keyes & J. Haidt (Eds.), Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived, 275-281. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.

Keltner, D., & Haidt, J . (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 297-314.

Images: Courtesy of Yee-Ming Tan.

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0 comment

Karen 25 September 2013 - 8:53 pm

I was feeling anxious about creating a Positivity Portfolio until I read your article. I’ve been completing a vey useful online course by Amelie Chance called Heal Your Broken Heart. I got stuck at Step 5 of the 15 step program. However, your article helped a lot. Thanks.


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