"When you feel a sense of, 'Hey, this is amazing,' you want to share that feeling," Simon-Thomas says. In fact, when researchers at Penn's Wharton School analyzed the most e-mailed articles from The New York Times, they found that the top contenders weren't the ones about the economy or the Gulf oil spill but rather those that inspired awe, like news of a new planet or the hockey goalie who's still playing after a cancer diagnosis.
Scientists say it pays to cultivate more wonder in your life, whether by forwarding heart-swelling news stories or hiking the Grand Canyon. That's because channeling awe not only produces pleasant physiological effects—such as the warm feeling in the chest activated by the vagus nerve—and gives a sense of fulfillment; it "can help a person reflect on how an upsetting event fits into their philosophy of life, or how their personal experience unites them with humanity," says Michelle Shiota, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University.
Shiota cites the example of a woman in one of her studies who described her grandmother's death in terms of its mystery rather than its sadness. "I believe that because she focused on the wonder of what happens when a person passes, thinking of it as a transition rather than an ending, it made the experience less painful," she says.
That wonder is a feeling Hammel's work has given her plenty of chances to experience. Lately she's been developing a telescope to glimpse far-off galaxies, but sometimes it's just heading to the office that gives her chills. During a drive to Hawaii's Mauna Kea Observatory one night, she reached the summit and saw the Milky Way. Her voice cracks with emotion as she remembers. "I pulled over and sat there with my mouth open, thinking, What an incredible universe."
Keep Your Eyes Wide Open