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What I Learned in 2013: “Moments of Awe Make Us Better People”

…regular incidences of awe, not only provided a kind of necessary catharsis, but also left subjects as fundamentally better people.

The Existentialist philosopher Camus said, “Life should be lived to the point of tears.” He was onto something. The pull towards transcendence reveals a fundamental human need to marvel, to become overwhelmed, to be flooded by cascading waves of meaning. In Religion for Atheists, the philosopher Alain De Botton wrote that secular institutions need to do a better job at creating spaces for non-believers to experience a kind of “mindgasmic,” aesthetic sublime. Human beings don't need to believe in God in order to experience this sort of nourishment—the symphonic beauty of cathedrals or rocket ships will do just fine. But why does the secular world require spaces for reverential awe?


This past year, I found the answer in a Stanford study published on the subject of “awe.”

In it, researchers described awe as an experience of such perceptual vastness that you have to reconfigure your mental schemata to accommodate the experience. We are “reset” by the sheer overwhelmingness of awe, purged in a perfect consummation with perfection itself.

But there’s more. The Stanford researchers also found that these regular incidences of awe, not only provided a kind of necessary catharsis, but also left subjects as fundamentally better people. The study reported increased feelings of well-wing, increased compassion, and increased altruism.

This revelation: that moments of awe make us better people, have provided a wonderful reference point, a scientific justification for my own existential yearnings for ecstasy and bliss. They are the foundations of an entire way of life: Chasing rhapsodies makes us nicer. Seeking inspiration is really seeking a better self.

This realization has been the inspiration behind my videos. So proceed you’re your pursuit of ecstasy, my friends. As Timothy Leary once said: "In order to use your head, you've got to go out of your mind."

This piece is part of a series sponsored by The GAP in which members of the 2013 GOOD 100 share important lessons they learned this past calendar year. Subscribe today to GOOD Magazine and receive the 2014 GOOD 100 edition this coming Spring.

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This article was produced in partnership with the United Nations to launch the biggest-ever global conversation on the role of cooperation in building the future we want.

When half of the world's population doesn't share the same opportunity or rights as the other half, the whole world suffers. Like a bird whose wings require equal strength to fly, humanity will never soar to its full potential until we achieve gender equality.

That's why the United Nations made one of its Sustainable Development Goals to "Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls." That goal includes providing women and girls equal access to education and health care, as well as addressing gender-based discrimination and violence against women and girls.

While there is still much work to be done, history shows us that we are capable of making big leaps forward on this issue. Check out some of the milestones humanity has already reached on the path to true equality.

Historic Leaps Toward Gender Equality

1848 The Seneca Falls Convention in New York, organized by Elizabeth Lady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, is the first U.S. women's convention to discuss the oppression of women in sociopolitical, economic, and religious life.

1893 New Zealand becomes the first self-governing nation to grant national voting rights to women.

1903 Marie Curie becomes the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. She is also the only woman to win multiple Nobel Prizes, for Physics in 1903 and Chemistry in 1911.

1920 The 19th Amendment is passed in the U.S. giving women the right to vote in all 50 U.S. states.

1973 The U.S. Open becomes the first major sports tournament of its kind to offer equal pay to women, after tennis star Billie Jean King threatened to boycott.

1975 The first World Conference on Women is held in Mexico, where a 10-year World Plan of Action for the Advancement of Women is formed. The first International Women's Day is commemorated by the UN in the same year.

1979 The UN General Assembly adopts the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), also known as the "Women's Bill of Rights." It is the most comprehensive international document protecting the rights of women, and the second most ratified UN human rights treaty after the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

1980 Vigdis Finnbogadottir of Iceland becomes the first woman to be elected head of state in a national election.

1993 The UN General Assembly adopts the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, the first international instrument to explicitly define forms of violence against women and lay out a framework for global action.

2010 The UN General Assembly creates the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) to speed progress on meeting the needs of women and girls around the world.

2018 The UN and European Union join forces on the Spotlight Initiative, a global, multi-year initiative focused on eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls.

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As the UN celebrates its 75th anniversary, it is redoubling its commitment to reach all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, including gender equality. But it will take action and effort from everyone to ensure that women and girls are free from discrimination and violence. Learn more about what is being done to address gender equality and see how you can get involved here.

And join the global conversation about the role of international cooperation in building the future by taking the UN75 survey here.

Let's make sure we all have a say in the future we want to see.

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