“You don’t need to go to the Grand Canyon,” says Paul K. Piff, an associate professor of psychological science who runs the Morality, Emotion and Social Hierarchy Lab at the University of California, Irvine. Piff studies what he calls the small self — the feeling of being part of something much bigger and more important than you.
Research suggests that being awed can trigger a sense of smallness, which in turn leads to greater generosity, willingness to help others and generally more pro-social behavior. The diminishment you’re looking for does not manifest as self-loathing or shame. In that kind of self-focused, self-critical mind-set, Piff says, “you are occupying the very center stage of your psychological world.” The point is to decenter and recontextualize yourself.
One of the easiest ways to elicit a sense of smallness is visual vastness. Stare out at the ocean. Look up at the stars. Witness a wave of raised fists ripple through a protesting crowd. Watch clouds. Find a hill with a view, and climb it. Or yes, get side by side with deep time by touching nearly-two-billion-year-old rocks in the Grand Canyon. “You want the visceral experience of ‘Wow, I’m really small relative to this really huge thing,’” Piff says.
The expansiveness of nature isn’t the only way to shrink yourself. Some people undergo such downsizing while listening to music, reading a religious text, taking psychedelics, studying string theory or watching someone birth a baby. You can find it in more quotidian moments, too, like observing the sun come through your window.
Certain character traits and circumstances make it easier for some to experience awe-induced diminutiveness. Wealthier, more privileged people tend to be awed less and experience the small self more infrequently than their lower-income counterparts. Narcissists struggle with the small self, too. Piff brings subjects into his lab and asks them to fill out a narcissism questionnaire. Then he shows them something spectacular, like a video clip of sweeping natural scenery from the BBC’s “Planet Earth.” “The people who are narcissistic feel relatively unmoved, whereas the less narcissistic are enthralled,” Piff says.
You can practice being awed. Think of the small self like a muscle; by training yourself to notice boundlessness, you can reduce your sense of entitlement, lower your narcissistic tendencies and feel more connected to others. You’re a puny part of something whole and unfathomable, and that’s enough.