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Awe and Flow

Girl With a Pearl Earring, by Johannes Vermeer.

Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Several years ago, I had the privilege of seeing Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” at the

Mauritshuis, in The Hague, the Netherlands. The artist and painting have long been favorites of mine. But I was not prepared for the overwhelming awe I experienced when standing in front of this small master work – that is, the brief time I was able to stand. The emotional impact of seeing this piece in person sent me straight to the nearest bench to recover.


An experience doesn’t need to be staggering to feel like awe. It can be a moment of wonder, exhilaration, or reverence at anything vast that is outside of ourselves. Think of the last time you caught your breath at a starry sky or a virtuoso performance by musicians.

Rehearsal at Strathmore, Paula K. Zeller.

Available through Glave Kocen.

The flow state, on the other hand, is feeling “in the zone” or deeply immersed in our own activity: painting, playing an instrument, reading, playing a sport, anything we find absorbing. Some key ways to find flow include:


  • Do a task where your skill and the challenge are pretty evenly balanced. Too easy, you might get bored. Too hard, and it’s likely frustrating.

  • Remove distractions.

  • Set clear goals for yourself.

  • Erase the fear that you might fail.

  • Lose your self-consciousness.

  • Forget about time.

  • Do the activity for its own sake, not external rewards.


Both awe and flow are considered “self-transcendent” experiences. Psychologists define this in many ways. The most meaningful to me is that we break the barriers between ourselves and other entities or experiences. Yena Kim – a doctoral student at the University of Chicago who studied the relationship of awe and flow to wisdom – links it all together this way:


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.


The implications of Kim’s and colleagues’ research are surprising and profound: “We find the effect of these experiences [awe and flow] can help you be wiser – more inclined to take others’ perspectives, have humility, and be more empathetic.”


More about awe and flow:


This 4-minute video by BBC Ideas is a good intro to flow.


The Greater Good Science Center, at the University of Berkeley, has several resources on awe, including this page on how to cultivate it.


“Awe & Flow: How to Reason Wisely” is a University of Chicago news article, by Jeannie Ngoc Boulware, summarizing the research of Yena Kim and colleagues.






Jun 21

Your blog has been getting me to think and I can relate mostly to experiencing awe when I watch babies. Facebook seems to know that and they keep showing me videos of babies. Paula❤. I've always been in awe of you, and your paintings are the icing on the cake. And I love your Blue Ice painting!


Replying to

Marlene, thank you so much for your very kind words! You are an amazing friend 😍! Watching babies is a terrific example of an awe-some experience. I'm experiencing that with my grandson now, and I remember how it felt with my daughters, too.


Jun 21

This is so interesting!! I love thinking about the connection between these two ideas and the suggestions for how to get into a flow.

Replying to

Thanks so much for reading my blog post and for your comments! I had been wondering if there was some kind of connection between awe and flow, so it was exciting to find this research. I'm very happy that the info resonated with you!

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