Belonging and Identity: How Awe and Cosmic Events Influence Our Sense of Self

Post-decision reactance is real. Friends and I experienced it collectively during yesterday’s solar eclipse, which—after some serious considerations (driving 5 days each way to Texas? Flying to Maine? Driving to Vegas to fly to Dallas?)— we did not see. Not totally, I should say.

Yesterday, I saw how the sun was approximately 38% covered by the moon. And I was fascinated! All round shadows were a little chipped by the moon. And for a little bit, my fascination with the world, the universe, and my insignificant role in it got the best of me. And I felt better and more at peace with myself – just for a little while. But why? I think the reason is that I felt that I belonged to something bigger, to a reference scheme free from peer comparisons and future worries. Research suggests that I am not alone in this feeling.

Finding common ground in our wonder at the universe

During the 2017 total solar eclipse, individuals in the eclipse’s path were approximately twice as likely to express awe in their tweets, according to a study by Sean Goldy published in Sage Journals (open access!). This sense of awe was linked to increased humility and pro-social behavior. Notably, those who witnessed the eclipse were more likely to use first-person plural pronouns such as ‚we‘ or ‚us,‘ in their social media communication. A finding that Goldy perceived as an indicator of a shared experience, a common moment. Even though Goldy observed that these effects were short-lived, lasting only about 24 hours, even brief periods of heightened connection can offer a welcome reprieve from every day tensions. In an era marked by polarization and social divides, finding common ground in our wonder at the universe can be a unifying force.

United in Awe

Researchers link these findings to the emotion of awe, which is the feeling one experiences when encountering something vast that challenges one’s worldview. Jennifer Stellar, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, explains to the BBC that awe is the response to something so extraordinary that it defies comprehension (the whole article is online here). This emotion has the potential to be transformative. In his book ‚Awe‘, Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, whose lab I visited during my time at the UC in 2022, explains that experiencing awe can silence our self-critical voice, enabling us to collaborate, expand our minds, and perceive life’s profound patterns.

Awe as Identity work that serves belonging?

However, I argue that another process is at work caused by, or even beyond, the emotion of awe: Being confronted with a cosmic event beyond human control momentarily shifts our perspective on our humanity. While we usually establish or confirm our identity by comparing ourselves to those around us, experiencing a solar eclipse prompts us to identify primarily as human beings in contrast to the cosmos. This slight change fosters a sense of community and reduces differentiation processes.

Similar dynamics were observed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the face of the big unknown, the scary thing that was bigger than oneself – we created a stronger us. We painted rainbows and clapped our hands on balconies (however effective that might have been).

Hence, events of this magnitude, which are beyond our control, create a sense of belonging because they temporarily unite us as a group simply because we choose our reference points differently.

The background: I am on my way to expand my research from resistant to belonging and am excited for the next steps of the journey, starting with participating at the Othering and Belonging Conference in Oakland at the end of this month, organized by the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley.

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