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Self-Transcendent Emotions and Their Social Functions: Compassion, Gratitude, and Awe Bind Us to Others Through Prosociality

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Abstract

In this article we review the emerging literature on the self-transcendent emotions. We discuss how the self-transcendent emotions differ from other positive emotions and outline the defining features of this category. We then provide an analysis of three specific self-transcendent emotions—compassion, gratitude, and awe—detailing what has been learned about their expressive behavior, physiology, and likely evolutionary origins. We propose that these emotions emerged to help humans solve unique problems related to caretaking, cooperation, and group coordination in social interactions. In our final section we offer predictions about the self-transcendent emotions that can guide future research.
https://doi.org/10.1177/1754073916684557
Emotion Review
Vol. 9 No. 3 (July 2017) 200 –207
© The Author(s) 2017
ISSN 1754-0739
DOI: 10.1177/1754073916684557
journals.sagepub.com/home/er
Emotions prioritize adaptive responses to threats and opportuni-
ties in the environment that are crucial for survival and repro-
duction (e.g., Ekman, 1992). For humans, many, if not most, of
these problems and opportunities are social, and include caring
for offspring, securing and sharing of food, and coordinating for
defense. Guided by the argument that humans are a highly social
species (e.g., Wilson, 2014), affective scientists have turned
their attention to the social functions of emotions (Fischer &
Manstead, 2008; Frijda & Mesquita, 1994; Keltner & Haidt,
1999; Niedenthal & Brauer, 2012; Parkinson, 1996). At the
heart of this approach is the question of how emotions help indi-
viduals coordinate interactions with allies, reproductive part-
ners, kin, and group members to meet the challenges that arise
when living in groups (Keltner & Lerner, 2010).
Self-Transcendent Emotions and Their Social
Functions: Compassion, Gratitude, and Awe
Bind Us to Others Through Prosociality
Jennifer E. Stellar
Psychology Department, University of Toronto, Canada
Amie M. Gordon
Center for Health and Community, University of California, San Francisco, USA
Paul K. Piff
Psychology Department, University of California, Irvine, USA
Daniel Cordaro
Center for Emotional Intelligence, Yale University, USA
Craig L. Anderson
San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, University of San Francisco, San Francisco, USA
Yang Bai
Laura A. Maruskin
Dacher Keltner
Psychology Department, University of California, Berkeley, USA
Abstract
In this article we review the emerging literature on the self-transcendent emotions. We discuss how the self-transcendent emotions
differ from other positive emotions and outline the defining features of this category. We then provide an analysis of three specific
self-transcendent emotions—compassion, gratitude, and awe—detailing what has been learned about their expressive behavior,
physiology, and likely evolutionary origins. We propose that these emotions emerged to help humans solve unique problems related
to caretaking, cooperation, and group coordination in social interactions. In our final section we offer predictions about the self-
transcendent emotions that can guide future research.
Keywords
awe, compassion, gratitude, positive emotions, prosociality
Author note: Much of the reviewed research on awe was supported by the John Templeton Foundation Grants 95524 and 88210.
Corresponding author: Jennifer E. Stellar, Psychology Department, University of Toronto, Mississauga, ON L5L3E2, Canada.
Email: jennifer.stellar@utoronto.ca
684557EMR0010.1177/1754073916684557Emotion ReviewStellar et al. The Self-Transcendent Emotions
research-article2017
Stellar et al. The Self-Transcendent Emotions 201
This social functional approach has yielded new interest in a
category of positive emotions, including compassion, awe, grat-
itude, appreciation, inspiration, admiration, elevation, and love,
which function to bind individuals together in social relation-
ships by promoting cooperation and group stability (e.g.,
Haidt, 2003). We refer to this category of emotions as the self-
transcendent emotions, in light of their capacity to encourage
individuals to transcend their own momentary needs and desires
and focus on those of another. Despite their important social
functions, these emotions have only recently begun to receive
greater empirical attention and there is still a lack of consensus
among affective scientists as to whether they represent emotions
at all (Ekman, 2016). In addition, these states have features that
are more trait-like (e.g., grateful disposition; McCullough,
Emmons, & Tsang, 2002) or motivational (e.g., to alleviate suf-
fering; Gilbert & Choden, 2013). The systematic study of these
self-transcendent emotions has important implications for under-
standing the functions and structure of emotion more generally.
In this article, we provide a theoretical account of the self-
transcendent emotions, synthesizing what has been claimed and
demonstrated. In doing this, we detail what is unique to these
emotions and what distinguishes them from other positive emo-
tions. Then we focus on three discrete self-transcendent emo-
tions: compassion, gratitude, and awe. These emotions help
solve three key social problems—caretaking, cooperation, and
group coordination. In addition, compassion, gratitude, and awe
share similarities with other prosocial emotions. Thus, when we
review compassion we assume many of the generalizations
should apply to sympathy, love, and pity (for a review see
Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas, 2010), when we discuss grat-
itude it should pertain to appreciation (for a review, see
McCullough, Kilpatrick, Emmons, & Larson, 2001), and when
we examine what is known about awe, it should relate to eleva-
tion, inspiration, and admiration (for a review, see Keltner &
Haidt, 2003). We begin with compassion and gratitude, before
turning our attention to awe, which we argue deserves a place in
this category. In the course of this article, we detail how these
three emotions are universally experienced, reliably expressed
(namely through touch; see Sauter, 2017), and related to neuro-
physiological responses. We then point to untested hypotheses
about these newly studied states.
Defining Self-Transcendent Emotions
The self-transcendent emotions share a number of characteris-
tics with the broader category of positive affect. Like other
positive emotions, they broaden and build one’s mindset and
resources (e.g., Fredrickson, 2001). Self-transcendent emotions
are particularly good at building social resources given their
ability to bond individuals together. They also feel pleasant
(e.g., C. A. Smith & Ellsworth, 1985; see Kringelbach &
Berridge, 2017, for discussion of pleasure and positive emo-
tions). Importantly though, some self-transcendent emotions
can involve negatively valenced appraisals that give rise to
more complex, mixed states. For example, while awe and com-
passion are categorized as positive emotions (Campos, Shiota,
Keltner, Gonzaga, & Goetz, 2013; Shaver, Schwartz, Kirson, &
O’Connor, 1987), awe can be colored by appraisals of threat
(Gordon, Stellar, et al., in press), and compassion can be experi-
enced as a more negative state (e.g., Condon & Feldman Barrett,
2013). Finally, positive and self-transcendent emotions both
generate approach motivations (Cacioppo, Gardner, & Berntson,
1999), though for self-transcendent emotions the object or tar-
get of this approach motivation is another person.
Critically, the self-transcendent emotions have a number of
features that differentiate them from other positive emotions.
The self-transcendent emotions typically arise out of other-
focused appraisals, shifting attention towards the needs and
concerns of others, rather than self. Compassion arises out of
appraisals of others’ undeserved suffering; gratitude out of oth-
ers’ generosity; and elevation out of others’ virtue. As a result,
many of the self-transcendent emotions have been deemed
other-praising emotions (Algoe & Haidt, 2009). By contrast,
other positive emotions arise out of self-relevant appraisals, for
example, that the self is safe and the environment familiar (joy)
or that the self has experienced a status-enhancing success
(pride; Izard, 1977; Lazarus, 1991). As a result, unlike other
positive emotions, which focus one’s attention on the self, the
self-transcendent emotions shift one’s attention toward others.
For instance, love may reduce self-absorption (for a review of
love, see Fredrickson, 2013; Shaver, Morgan, & Wu, 1996) and
awe leads to self-diminishment (Shiota, Keltner, & Mossman,
2007) and humility (Stellar et al., 2017). As a result, self-trans-
cendent emotions are other-oriented, diminishing one’s focus on
the self and encouraging greater sensitivity and attunement to
others.
The self-transcendent emotions are fundamentally organized
by the concern to enhance the welfare of others and as a result
they promote prosocial behavior. Central to these emotions is
the motivation to enhance the welfare of others, through harm-
reducing behavior in the case of compassion (Goetz et al.,
2010), reciprocal acts of generosity in the case of gratitude
(Bartlett & DeSteno, 2006), and prosocial action and collabora-
tion in the case of awe (Piff, Dietze, Feinberg, Stancato, &
Keltner, 2015). Although prosocial behavior can and does occur
in the absence of these emotions, and is produced by other posi-
tive states (Isen & Levin, 1972), self-transcendent emotions are
powerful proximal determinants of prosocial action (e.g., Goetz
et al., 2010; McCullough et al., 2001; Piff et al., 2015).
Through prosocial tendencies, the self-transcendent emo-
tions bind individuals to others within social collectives,
whether it is one’s offspring, romantic partner, or nonkin. For
example, compassion is thought to be critical to care and filial
attachment (Mikulincer, Shaver, Gillath, & Nitzberg, 2005),
love is a determinant and protector of the long-term commit-
ment of reproductive relations (Gonzaga, Keltner, Londahl, &
Smith, 2001), gratitude is a driver of cooperative alliances
among nonkin (McCullough et al., 2001), and awe is a motiva-
tor of commitment to social collectives (Keltner & Haidt, 2003).
These qualities account for why self-transcendent emotions like
compassion, gratitude, and awe, to which we now turn, are
foundational to the complex social processes that define the
human species. The ultimate function of these emotions, bind-
ing individuals together, is rooted in the assumption that humans
202 Emotion Review Vol. 9 No. 3
are designed to be social (Dunbar & Shultz, 2007; Nowak,
Tarnita, & Wilson, 2010; Sober & Wilson, 1998) and that self-
transcendent emotions help humans take advantage of the ben-
efits of sociality, which could not be attained alone.
Compassion
The emotion of compassion is defined as feeling concern for
another’s suffering accompanied by the motivation to help and
is experienced toward a variety of targets ranging from others
who suffer emotionally to those in immediate danger.
Compassion is part of a family of states such as pity, sympathy,
and empathic concern, which vary according to secondary
appraisals (Goetz et al., 2010). However, compassion is differ-
ent from empathy. Empathy represents an ability to share anoth-
er’s feelings (affective) and understand their perspective
(cognitive; Cox et al., 2012), whereas compassion represents a
complimentary emotional response to another’s suffering
(Lazarus, 1991). In addition, empathy can refer to a multitude of
shared emotional states such as joy, embarrassment, or sadness
making it difficult to classify empathy as a discrete emotion
(e.g., Royzman & Rozin, 2006).
Evolutionary arguments about the origins of compassion
focus on how it motivates caretaking of offspring and promotes
cooperation with nonkin (Goetz et al., 2010). Human infants
have a long period of vulnerability, requiring immense parental
investment. As a result, adaptations such as affective responses
that attune parents to an offspring’s distress and encourage care-
taking should be selected for in order for parents to successfully
pass their genes to the next generation. Empirical work has
identified a strong relationship between compassion and attach-
ment styles solidified in early childhood (Mikulincer et al.,
2005), and variability in compassion responses to suffering are
better explained by nurturant tendencies rooted in the desire to
care for offspring than by other potential mechanisms like per-
ceived similarity (Batson, Lishner, Cook, & Sawyer, 2005).
Although compassion likely originated to facilitate caring
for infants, it extended beyond offspring and is theorized to pro-
mote cooperation between nonkin (Trivers, 1971). On this,
empirical studies find that compassion towards another in need
reduces perceived psychological distance (Oveis, Horberg, &
Keltner, 2010) and motivates prosocial behavior central to
reciprocally altruistic relationships. Inducing feelings of com-
passion evokes greater generosity (Saslow et al., 2013), helping
(Eisenberg et al., 1989), and more costly forms of aid, such as
taking painful shocks in place of another person (Batson,
Duncan, Ackerman, Buckley, & Birch, 1981). Interestingly, as a
motivator of costly prosocial behavior, compassion is sensitive
to the tendency of the sufferer to reciprocate in the future and as
such is reduced for egoistic others (Stellar, Feinberg, & Keltner,
2014). Compassion and the reciprocal relationships it engenders
offer direct benefits for the individual and group (Darwin,
1871/2004).
In keeping with claims that compassion serves evolutionarily
significant social functions, it follows that compassion will be
universally experienced, reliably expressed, and accompanied
by specific biological changes. Consistent with this analysis,
compassion has been observed in humans’ closest primate rela-
tives and ethological studies of preindustrial cultures (e.g., de
Waal, 1996; Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1989). The experience of compas-
sion is also communicated across different cultures through pat-
terns of touch (Hertenstein, Keltner, App, Bulleit, & Jaskolka,
2006) and vocalizations (e.g., Cordaro, Keltner, Tshering,
Wangchuk, & Flynn, 2016). Finally, there is emerging evidence
that compassion elicits reliable changes in the autonomic nerv-
ous system, most notably in increased activation of the vagus
nerve, which may facilitate support-giving and care-taking
behaviors (Stellar, Cohen, Oveis, & Keltner, 2015). Participants
induced to feel compassion, compared to neutral or other posi-
tive states (e.g., pride or inspiration), exhibited reduced heart rate
and greater vagal activation assessed via respiratory sinus
arrhythmia. These physiological changes during compassion
correlated with continuous self-reports of compassion and
observers’ ratings of expressed compassion. In addition, induc-
ing compassion was associated with greater activity in the peri-
aqueductal gray, a region of the midbrain known to promote
nurturant behavior in mammals (Simon-Thomas et al., 2012).
Gratitude
Gratitude flows from the perception that one has benefited from
the costly, intentional, voluntary action of another person and is
part of a family of emotions that includes related states such as
appreciation (McCullough et al., 2001). Gratitude is thought to
solve problems related to resource sharing by coordinating
responses to another’s altruism and motivating patterns of reci-
procity (McCullough, Kimeldorf, & Cohen, 2008). Rudimentary
forms of gratitude have been observed in chimpanzees in the
context of food sharing, which is targeted toward nonkin who
have groomed them at an earlier time (Bonnie & de Waal, 2004;
Darwin, 1871/2004). Experiences and expressions of gratitude
reinforce reciprocity among nonkin, which brings benefits to
the individual over time and encourages more cohesive groups
(Trivers, 1971). Gratitude increases the likelihood that the ben-
efactor will behave prosocially toward the giver in the future
(McCullough et al., 2008), effects that can endure for months
(Algoe, Haidt, & Gable, 2008). Compared to other positive
emotions, eliciting gratitude by having a confederate help a par-
ticipant led participants to behave more prosocially toward the
confederate in subsequent interactions (Bartlett & DeSteno,
2006). Gratitude also increases the likelihood that the giver will
behave prosocially by making them feel valued. Strong expres-
sions of gratitude elicit greater economic giving (Rind & Bordia,
1995) and helping (Grant & Gino, 2010) in others. These effects
extend to all types of relationships from strangers to romantic
partners (Gordon, Impett, Kogan, Oveis, & Keltner, 2012).
Gratitude also serves the social function of initiating novel
reciprocal relationships by motivating “upstream altruism”—
future prosocial behavior toward novel others (Nowak & Roch,
2006). For instance, participants induced to feel gratitude were
more likely to help a stranger than participants who felt other
positive states (Bartlett & DeSteno, 2006). In addition, keeping
Stellar et al. The Self-Transcendent Emotions 203
a gratitude journal each week increased people’s feelings of
connection to others and reported prosociality compared to con-
trol activities (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). These findings
dovetail with earlier theoretical accounts of gratitude, suggest-
ing that it creates more cohesive and better functioning groups
(A. Smith, 1790/1976).
As with compassion, there is preliminary evidence that core
processes related to gratitude demonstrate universality, although
no study to date has systematically examined neurophysiologi-
cal correlates of the emotion. Gratitude appears in a variety of
cultures (McCullough et al., 2001) and experiences of gratitude
are reliably communicated to others via specific patterns of tac-
tile contact (Hertenstein et al., 2006) and verbal responses (e.g.,
“thank you”; Grant & Gino, 2010).
Awe
Awe is characterized by the perception of being in the presence
of something vast that the individual does not immediately
understand (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). It is often likened to feel-
ing wonder and includes related states such as admiration, inspi-
ration, and elevation. Although roughly one fifth of awe
experiences are tinged with fear (Gordon, Stellar et al., in press),
the majority of awe experiences resemble the positive states we
have considered thus far. Approximately half of all awe experi-
ences arise in response to other-focused appraisals (the actions
of others related to virtuosity, magnanimity, and stature, either
physical or psychological); the next largest category of elicitors
is nature (Shiota et al., 2007). Recent research from other cul-
tures such as China suggests the proportion of awe experiences
elicited by others is even higher (closer to 75%) in non-Western
cultures (Stellar, Bai, Anderson, McNeil, & Keltner, 2017).
Evolutionary claims about the functions of awe are predi-
cated on the assumption that individuals attain goals (e.g., hunt-
ing large mammals) and fend off threats (e.g., warfare) more
successfully in groups than alone (Dunbar & Shultz, 2007;
Nowak et al., 2010; Sober & Wilson, 1998). Individuals reap the
most benefits from group membership when those social groups
are cohesive and stable, which requires reducing the self-inter-
ested motivations of each individual group member. Given this
thinking, it has been posited that awe may have originated in
response to powerful leaders, though it later generalized to
objects with similarly vast or powerful properties (Keltner &
Haidt, 2003). In this social context awe is believed to serve the
function of prioritizing group goals and organizing individuals
into hierarchies, processes that would be crucial for coordinat-
ing communal responses to threats or opportunities (Keltner &
Haidt, 2003; for an overview of nonsocial functions such as
generating exploration and learning, see Valdesolo, Shtulman,
& Baron, 2017).
Feeling awe towards an individual could create greater group
cohesion and coordination in two ways. First, awe may increase
devotion and commitment to the leader and group. Recent work
supports these claims, demonstrating that awe towards an indi-
vidual leads to greater loyalty, willingness to sacrifice, and pos-
itive views of the group to which the person belongs compared
to other positive states (Stellar, Bai et al., 2017). Awe promotes
group coordination and cohesiveness as well by generating feel-
ings of interconnectedness and common humanity (Shiota et al.,
2007). Future work should examine how awe functions within
groups and whether it is more common in prestige or dominance
hierarchies (Cheng, Tracy, Foulsham, Kingstone, & Henrich,
2013).
Second, awe should also help individuals negotiate their own
status vis-à-vis another by highlighting their subordinate posi-
tion relative to a powerful other and evoking a reduced estima-
tion of the importance of the self. In support of this claim,
individuals feel lower status when compared to awe-inspiring
others than controls (Stellar, Bai, et al., 2017) and manipulations
of awe elicit self-diminishment (Shiota et al., 2007), humility
(Stellar, Gordon, et al., 2017), and reduced entitlement (Piff
et al., 2015). Importantly, like other self-transcendent emotions,
feeling awe predicts prosocial behavior in a variety of forms,
including generosity in economic games and donation of time to
help others (Piff et al., 2015; Rudd, Vohs, & Aaker, 2012).
Our conceptual analysis would yield the prediction that awe
is universally experienced and expressed, and that it is associ-
ated with specific patterns of neurophysiological activation.
Recent work has revealed that awe is experienced in a variety of
industrialized as well as preindustrialized cultures (Cordaro
et al., 2016) and has universally recognized expressions in the
face (Campos et al., 2013; Shiota, Campos, & Keltner, 2003)
and voice (e.g., Cordaro et al., 2016; Simon-Thomas, Keltner,
Sauter, Sinicropi-Yao, & Abramson, 2009). In addition, awe is
associated with biological changes in the form of piloerection
(goose bumps), a specific response of the sympathetic auto-
nomic nervous system (Maruskin, Thrash, & Ellliot, 2012).
As self-transcendent emotions, compassion, gratitude, and
awe help individuals meet the various social problems that con-
front humans living in groups. Compassion compels individuals
to care for those in need, strengthening social ties when they
matter the most. Gratitude builds commitment in social relation-
ships by coordinating responses to the kindness of others. Awe
helps individuals fold into cohesive collectives by leading to a
reduced estimation of one’s individual importance. These emo-
tions foster healthy social relationships, binding individuals
together through prosociality.
Towards a Science of the Self-Transcendent
Emotions
Thus far, we have differentiated the self-transcendent emotions
from other positive states and have explored the crucial social
functions of three self-transcendent emotions—compassion,
gratitude, and awe. We have examined the considerable pro-
gress made in documenting the universality as well as expres-
sive and physiological correlates of these emotions and the
mounting evidence for the claim that these are indeed distinct
emotions. With these advances as a foundation, we now turn to
more speculative considerations related to the future study of
the self-transcendent emotions. The claims derive from the
social functionalist approach that has guided this article.
204 Emotion Review Vol. 9 No. 3
Prediction 1: The self-transcendent emotions should be
more strongly bounded by group membership than other posi-
tive states. Self-transcendent emotions, we argue, bind indi-
viduals together through acts of prosociality, thus creating
more cohesive groups. Our conceptual analysis suggests that
the experience and expression of the self-transcendent emo-
tions, more so than positive emotions (e.g., amusement),
should be moderated by the in-group or out-group status of
target individuals. In support of this claim, research consist-
ently demonstrates that compassion is markedly diminished
toward out-groups (Chiao & Mathur, 2010) and that compas-
sion is a strong predictor of prosocial behavior towards in-
group, but not toward out-group members (Stürmer, Snyder,
& Omoto, 2005). We would likewise expect awe to be most
reliably elicited by and expressed toward the actions of in-
group as opposed to out-group members, suppositions await-
ing empirical test.
This analysis raises an intriguing possibility warranting future
investigation. If an individual were to experience one of the self-
transcendent emotions toward an out-group member, it may
prove more beneficial for intergroup relations than experiencing
other positive emotions (e.g., Stephan & Finlay, 1999). Past
work supports this claim; feeling elevation, toward an out-group
increased prosocial behavior towards that out-group and reduced
group-based dominance (Freeman, Aquino, & McFerran, 2009).
Whether these intergroup benefits are produced by compassion,
gratitude, or awe, and whether biases related to race, political
ideology, or sexual orientation are reduced by these emotions,
remain timely questions.
Prediction 2: The self-transcendent emotions should produce
benefits for health and well-being through improved social rela-
tionships with others. Despite the tendency for emotions like
compassion, gratitude, and awe to shift one’s focus toward oth-
ers and away from the self, these emotions appear to yield direct
benefits to the self in the form of greater physical health and
well-being. Physical benefits have been identified for a variety
of self-transcendent emotions. The tendency to feel awe better
predicted lower levels of proinflammatory cytokines, a negative
marker of health, than six other positive emotions (Stellar, John-
Henderson, et al., 2015). Experiences of compassion activate
healthier autonomic functioning in the form of greater parasym-
pathetic system activation via the vagus nerve (Stellar, Cohen,
et al., 2015; Stellar & Keltner, in press). Compassion, and eleva-
tion indirectly, have been associated with the release of oxytocin,
which reduces activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal
axis and is negatively associated with cortisol (Barraza & Zak,
2009; Ditzen et al., 2009; Silvers & Haidt, 2008). In addition,
dispositional gratitude is a strong predictor of self-reported phys-
ical health, controlling for age and personality traits (Hill,
Allemand, & Roberts, 2013).
The self-transcendent emotions have also been associated
with greater subjective well-being. Inducing awe leads to boosts
in life satisfaction (Rudd et al., 2012). Manipulations of grati-
tude through counting blessings have been associated with
greater happiness and optimism in daily life (e.g., Emmons &
McCullough 2003; Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, 2010) and feeling
gratitude generates motivations to self-improve (Armenta, Fritz,
& Lyubomirsky, 2017). New work suggests that compassion
reduces psychological stress about one’s own problems (Stellar,
Jin, et al., 2017).
Although other positive emotions certainly promote better
health and well-being (e.g., Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002), they
likely do so, we contend, through a variety of mechanisms. For
example, pride increases feelings of efficacy, whereas hope gen-
erates optimism in the face of negativity (see Cohen-Chen,
Crisp, & Halperin, 2017), both of these emotions lead to shifts
in construal that likely yield health and well-being benefits.
With respect to the benefits of self-transcendent emotions, we
propose that these arise through a common mechanism—their
capacity to strengthen one’s connection with others. There is
strong evidence supporting the ability of self-transcendent emo-
tions to help individuals initiate and maintain relationships with
others (e.g., Gordon et al., 2012; Oveis et al., 2010; Shiota et al.,
2007). There is suggestive support for claims that gratitude
leads to greater well-being through feelings of connectedness
since individuals from cultures that prioritize social relation-
ships benefit more from gratitude interventions than cultures
that do not (Boehm, Lyubomirsky, & Sheldon, 2011). Future
work should examine whether better social functioning consist-
ently mediates the emerging relationship between self-trans-
cendent emotions and mental and physical health.
Prediction 3: The self-transcendent emotions should be more
frequently strategically displayed or elicited than other positive
states. Individuals strategically express emotions to evoke spe-
cific responses from others (e.g., Sinaceur & Tiedens, 2006).
Emotions like compassion, gratitude, and awe signal prosocial-
ity to others. Strategic expression of gratitude has been docu-
mented by its greater communication in public than in private
(Baumeister & Ilko, 1995). Additionally, it is likely that indi-
viduals would try and strategically elicit these emotions in oth-
ers to reap the benefits of the prosocial behavior they generate.
As one illustration, eliciting other-oriented concern or compas-
sion from partners by inauthentic expressions of sadness in a
negotiation has been found to extract greater concessions from
partners (Sinaceur, Kopelman, Vasiljevic, & Haag, 2015).
The strategic elicitation of the self-transcendent emotions
raises intriguing issues about how these emotions can be used to
exploit others, and whether or not individuals can reliably dif-
ferentiate between authentic and inauthentic expressions of
these states, issues awaiting empirical study. Preliminary evi-
dence suggests that people can make such distinctions: for
example, expressions of gratitude by a salesperson, which could
be seen as strategic, elicited negative responses from buyers
(Carey, Clicque, Leighton, & Milton, 1976). Since feeling self-
transcendent emotions typically predicts future prosocial action,
feigning their expression (e.g., faking compassion without an
intention of helping) has important consequences for the poten-
tial beneficiary of that prosocial action. In addition, strategically
eliciting these emotions in others (e.g., strategically stating how
much one has done for another person to intentionally evoke
gratitude) in order to force affiliation or extract costly prosocial
behavior would also be harmful to the person from whom the
Stellar et al. The Self-Transcendent Emotions 205
emotion is being elicited. Future work should examine whether
people strategically express and elicit self-transcendent emo-
tions more frequently than other emotional states and when this
can backfire.
Conclusion
Self-transcendent emotions help individuals form enduring
commitments to kin, nonkin, and social collectives. They do so
by fostering connection, commitment, and attachment to others,
reinforcing social bonds when they can be the most easily
eroded by self-interest—when others are in need of our help,
when they go out of their way to benefit us, or when they dis-
play power and status superior to our own. Thus, emotions like
compassion, gratitude, and awe lie at the foundations of human
sociality.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect
to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
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... Thus, the two-way hypothesis between connection to nature and positive emotions is proposed and tested through social connection (Moreton et al., 2019). Connection to nature can lead to positive emotions (Capaldi et al., 2014) and positive emotions can also enhance connection to nature (Moreton et al., 2019), with self-transcending positive emotions as a specific category of positive emotions being highly effective in inducing connection to nature (Stellar et al., 2017;Moreton et al., 2019). ...
... In this study, positive emotions in general are defined as emotional experiences and evaluations of the self, which simply evoke intrinsic emotions of the individual; self-transcending positive emotions are defined as emotional experiences and evaluations of individuals outside the self, also known as emotions that praise others. This includes inspiration, awe, gratitude, moving, respect, admiration, humility, and love (Moreton et al., 2019), although this classification is not fully identified (Keltner and Haidt, 2003;Stellar et al., 2017). Among them, self-transcendence represents the beauty and nobility of humanity. ...
... (Wong et al., 2021). Self-transcendent emotions refer to a category of emotions, such as awe, love, promotion and appreciation that connect people in social relationships (Stellar et al., 2017). And this emotion broadens and builds one's mindset and social resources (Fredrickson, 2001) and has the ability to bond individuals together in a way that is enjoyable for both parties (Smith and Ellsworth, 1985;Kringelbach and Berridge, 2017). ...
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... With awe, individuals will feel small, focus on something greater than the self, forget daily concerns, have a close connection with the surrounding world, and hope to prolong or memorize the experience [9]. The subjective experience of awe is consistent with the notion of self-transcendence [13], and it is fundamentally out of concern to enhance the welfare of others, thus promoting prosocial behavior [14]. Studies have reported that awe can significantly and positively influence prosocial behavior tendency and online altruism [15]. ...
... In this study, we explored the mechanisms that translate awe into prosocial behavior. Although the effect of awe on prosocial behavior has received considerable empirical support [12,14,27], the potential mediation and moderation mechanisms are unclear. Thus, we put forth a moderated mediation model to test how awe works and whether all individuals are equally influenced by awe. ...
... These results indicate that awe is an important factor affecting prosocial behavior. Awe is a type of self-transcendent positive emotion disposition [9,14]. Self-transcendence usually comes from other focused assessments, shifting attention to the needs and concerns of others rather than to themselves. ...
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Although awe has been shown to increase prosocial behavior, there is limited knowledge about the mechanisms underlying this relationship, and about this relationship during unique periods. To bridge these gaps, this study examined the influence of awe on prosocial behaviors, the mediating role of the presence of meaning in life, and the moderating role of perceived social support. Based on longitudinal surveys from 676 Chinese college students we showed that: (1) awe was positively associated with prosocial behavior; (2) the presence of meaning in life mediated this association, and; (3) these associations were moderated by perceived social support. Specifically, the positive relationship between awe and the presence of meaning in life was only significant for college students with low perceived social support; and the positive relationship between the presence of meaning in life and prosocial behavior was stronger for college students with high perceived social support.
... However, not all positive emotions are created equal. There is a special class of positive emotions that has shown a privileged link with selftranscendence, to an extent that they have been named "self-transcendent" emotions" (Stellar et al., 2017). ...
... 853) have been scientifically investigated only in the last 20 years (Haidt, 2003). Recently, in the realm of STEs, there have been included several emotions such as elevation, compassion, admiration, love, and awe (Stellar et al., 2017). Elevation, which is elicited in front of human exemplars of moral virtue (Haidt, 2003), and Admiration, as the emotional response to human skills and talent (Algoe & Haidt, 2009;Onu, Kessler, & Smith, 2016), along with Compassion, arising in front of others', especially those related to the self-sufferance (Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas, 2010), Love, conceived in terms of attachment and nurturance (Lamy, 2016), and Awe, as the complex emotion arising from vast stimuli able to challenge people' mental frames (Keltner & Haidt, 2003), are all otheroriented emotions, in which the self' boundaries fade out to make room for something more important, higher, and vaster. ...
... Then, they can trigger action tendencies or behaviors leading to benefits for others -besides the individual who is experiencing the emotion -or for the entire society (Dein, 2020). Specifically, Stellar et al. (2017) suggested that compassion and awe serve the function of shifting need from self to others, improving the well-being of others and supporting the sense of belonging to a community. ...
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The considerable connection between religiosity/spirituality and positivity in life in general has been widely demonstrated. However, preliminary evidence has shown that when also a cognitive component is included, the direction of this relationship seems to emerge more clearly. Specifically, the differential pathways linking specific positive self-transcendent (ST) experiences and religiosity/spirituality is still an open issue. In this study, we explored the cognitive pathways linking general ST to spirituality and religiosity, via basic beliefs. The results obtained were partially in line with the existing literature. Notably, being a believer or not did not affect the emotional side but only the cognitive one.
... After an experience of awe, indeed, individuals have shown more prosocial attitudes and behaviors toward other people and nature, as well as decreased aggressivity, increased generosity (Piff et al., 2015;Stellar et al., 2018), enhanced creative thinking abilities (Chirico et al., 2018b), and decreases in the cognitive emotion regulation strategy of rumination (Lopes et al., 2020). At the same time, when the awe experience is negatively connotated, it has been associated with the feeling of fear and powerlessness, loss of self-control, uncertainty, and lowered sense of situational control (Piff et al., 2015;Stellar et al., 2017). ...
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The concept of transformative experience (TE) has been widely explored by several disciplines from philosophy to neurobiology, and in different domains, from the spiritual to the educational one. This attitude has engendered heterogeneous models to explain this phenomenon. However, a consistent and clear understanding of this construct remains elusive. The aim of this work is to provide an initial comprehensive interdisciplinary, cross-domain, up-to-date, and integrated overview on the concept of TEs. Firstly, all the models and theories on TEs were reviewed to extract and analyze TEs’ main components emerging from different disciplines. Then, this preliminary analysis was integrated with an in-depth examination of redundancies and particularities across domains and disciplines, to provide an integrated theoretical framework of TEs and a preliminary interdisciplinary operational definition of TEs. This examination, in turn, can help organize current research and theories, thus providing suggestions for operationalizing TEs as well as encouraging new interdisciplinary research endeavors.
... Here, by contrast, we investigated the potential for transformative experiences at mass gatherings to expand the boundaries of one's moral circle beyond the group to include all of humanity [33][34][35] . Recent research suggests that experiences of self-transcendent emotions are associated with increased identification with all humanity-i.e., increased concern for all other human beingsand motivations to help distant others 36,37 . Other work has shown that such experiences are associated with heightened feelings of social connectedness 38 . ...
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Humans have long sought experiences that transcend or change their sense of self. By weakening boundaries between the self and others, such transformative experiences may lead to enduring changes in moral orientation. Here we investigated the psychological nature and prosocial correlates of transformative experiences by studying participants before (n = 600), during (n = 1217), 0–4 weeks after (n = 1866), and 6 months after (n = 710) they attended a variety of secular, multi-day mass gatherings in the US and UK. Observations at 6 field studies and 22 online followup studies spanning 5 years showed that self-reported transformative experiences at mass gatherings were common, increased over time, and were characterized by feelings of universal connectedness and new perceptions of others. Participants’ circle of moral regard expanded with every passing day onsite—an effect partially mediated by transformative experience and feelings of universal connectedness. Generosity was remarkably high across sites but did not change over time. Immediately and 6 months following event attendance, self-reported transformative experience persisted and predicted both generosity (directly) and moral expansion (indirectly). These findings highlight the prosocial qualities of transformative experiences at secular mass gatherings and suggest such experiences may be associated with lasting changes in moral orientation. Mass gatherings may elicit experiences of profound personal change. Here the authors show across six field sites that reporting of transformative experiences at mass gatherings are common, increase over time, and predict lasting increases in participants’ circle of moral regard.
... Positive emotions not only included pride, joy and optimism but also empathy and gratitude as referenced within the included studies. Self-transcendent emotions of compassion, gratitude and awe are described as encouraging individuals to transcend their own immediate needs and desires to focus on the welfare of others (Stellar et al., 2017). While there was some evidence of participants construing their experiences in terms of personal growth, it is acknowledged that given that participants in the included studies were interviewed while their pandemics were active, it is unclear if the time from the event was sufficient to create the necessary conditions for post traumatic growth. ...
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Background The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the need to attend to Health Care Workers (HCWs) mental health. What promotes resilience in HCWs during pandemics is largely unknown. Aim To appraise and synthesize studies investigating resilience among HCWs during COVID-19, H1N1, MERS, EBOLA and SARS pandemics. Method A systematic review of studies from 2002 to 11th March 2022 was conducted. PsychInfo, CINAHL, Medline, Embase, Web of Science, Scopus and the Cochrane Library databases were searched for qualitative and mixed-methods studies investigating the well-being of HCWs working in hospital settings during a pandemic. Data was extracted, imported into NVivo and analyzed by means of thematic synthesis. Reporting followed PRISMA and ENTREQ guidelines. Results One hundred and twenty-one eligible studies (N = 11,907) were identified. The results revealed six main themes underpinning HCWs resilience: moral purpose and duty, connections, collaboration, organizational culture, character and potential for growth. Conclusion The studies reviewed indicated that HCWs resilience is mainly born out of their professional identity, collegial support, effective communication from supportive leaders along with flexibility to engage in self-care and experiences of growth.
... Additionally to coping, past research suggests that self-transcendent emotions are a key resource to foster resilience. For example, altruism is believed to have emerged to help humans solve problems through cooperation and care-taking (Stellar et al., 2017). Furthermore, altruism has been associated with psychological resilience in both adults and children (Leontopoulou, 2010;Southwick, Vythilingam, & Charney, 2005). ...
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