How a Sense of Awe Stimulates Economic Growth
By Theo Edmonds
January 14, 2023

Beauty & the Economic Beast

My husband and I are always awestruck hiking in the beauty of the Rocky Mountain National Park. We say to each other, “I wonder if the feeling ever goes away or gets old?” (I don’t think it does.)

Did you know the song “America the Beautiful” was based on a poem written by the professor, poet, and writer Katharine Lee Bates, during an 1893 trip to Colorado? I just learned this recently after moving to Denver. I also learned that our part of the front-range area of Colorado has the second oldest taxpayer-approved financing in the nation to support the cultural lives of its citizens. SCFD was created in the late 1980s when the Denver metro economy faced a serious economic downturn, and cultural funding at the city and state levels was being cut significantly. 

Today, the Metro Denver area is listed on almost every list as one of America’s top cities for economic resiliency as Americans begin moving past the acute crises sparked by COVID. But, beyond traditional economic performance indicators that tell us WHAT has happened, the more interesting question to me is trying to understand WHY?

How These Last Few Years Changed Us

In a September paper published in PLoS ONE, a team of researchers studied more than 7,000 U.S. adults whose “Big Five” personality traits had been monitored from 2014 onward. Since 2020, here’s what they found for how we changed:

  • Extraversion: We became less likely to seek out company and enjoy time with others;
  • Openness: We lost capacity to seek out novelty and engage with new ideas;
  • Agreeableness: Sympathy and kindness declined, affecting our ability to get along with others;
  • Conscientiousness: We became less motivated to pursue goals and accept responsibilities.

So, I wonder, is it possible that Metro Denver’s access to awe-inspiring nature and arts participation is helping to drive our economic resilience and innovation?

What Is Awe?

In recent years, there has been an increased focus on understanding the link between experiencing awe and economic growth. Here are a few intriguing insights into how this connection works and why it matters.

Awe is defined as “an emotion combining elements of surprise, admiration, and respect for something that is seen as greater than the self.” This emotion can be triggered by experiences such as watching a stunning sunset, entering a beautiful building, listening to incredible music, or even studying the images online coming back from the Webb telescope. When we experience awe, our sense of time and space expands, allowing us to connect with something greater than ourselves.

The Impact of Awe on Economic Growth

Experiencing awe can have multiple positive effects on our economic lives. First, research has shown that when we feel awe, our attention shifts from short-term concerns to long-term goals. This shift can motivate us to pursue larger projects and investments that may yield more substantial rewards in the future. In addition, feeling awestruck often inspires us to seek out new experiences or explore different cultures which can lead to an increase in tourism revenue for cities or countries. Finally, being moved by awe increases empathy towards others which encourages collaboration and cooperation leading to enhanced productivity in the workplace.

These examples suggest that awe is part of the antidote to getting our groove back. Especially those outlined above on how COVID changed us. Moreover, research increasingly links awe with #creativity and #wellbeing at both the individual and group levels. These are critical antecedents of #innovation and among the most important human skills in the #futureofwork.

Awesome Actions

There is no doubt that feeling awestruck plays a vital role in stimulating economic growth both locally and globally. Not only does it motivate people to pursue larger projects, but it also encourages collaboration across different communities through increased empathy toward others. This is why CU Denver’s Imaginator Academy includes the measurement of awe in our set of key indicators for developing a #CreativityInfrastructure that is capable of meeting the demands of today and tomorrow.

The next time you are moved by something bigger than yourself—take note! You may just be helping drive global economic growth without even realizing it.

By Theo Edmonds
Culture Futurist™ | Creativity Strategist | Conceptual Artist | #WorkplaceWellbeing Researcher | Entrepreneur