The surprising benefits of feeling insignificant

In the grand scheme of things, you are a tiny blip on the Earth’s surface. And recognising that fact may make you a better person, writes David Robson.

Take a look at the video above. Feel small and insignificant, compared to the enormous, beautiful world around you? If so, you may just have become a kinder person.

That’s the conclusion of a recent study by Paul Piff and colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, examining the psychology of awe. Whether you are attending church or looking at a mountain, awe can be defined as wonder and amazement at something much bigger than yourself. Previous studies had found that it can also make you feel more connected to other people – leading Piff and colleagues to test whether it also makes people more altruistic.

They showed the BBC’s Planet Earth series, with sweeping natural scenes, and asked the subjects to play a game for money

To test the idea, they 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.

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

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. Hurrah!

David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.

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