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



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.
Emotion Review
Vol. 9 No. 3 (July 2017) 200 –207
© The Author(s) 2017
ISSN 1754-0739
DOI: 10.1177/1754073916684557
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
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.
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.
684557EMR0010.1177/1754073916684557Emotion ReviewStellar et al. The Self-Transcendent Emotions
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
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.
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,
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 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 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,
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
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.
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
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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... Sensations related to the felt experience are varied and generally are associated with feelings of comfort, security, warm sensations in the chest, appreciation, admiration, joy, love, and being blessed . Gratitude has been described as a positive emotion, complex emotion, an empathic emotion (Fredrickson, 2004), and a self-transcendent emotion (Stellar et al., 2017). Gratitude has been studied as a transient emotional state, and a dispositional trait characteristic of a grateful personality (McCullough et al., 2002). ...
... Because of its intimate association with profound transcendent experiences, gratitude has been characterized as a self-transcendent emotion along with awe, admiration, and compassion. As with gratitude, transcendent emotions involve cognitive appraisals that shift attention toward others and attenuate the self-other boundaries that characterize individual ego identity, resulting in enhanced spirituality (Cappellen, 2013;Stellar et al., 2017). Gratitude has been shown to be correlated with experiences that involve unity consciousness or nonduality (Elfers & Hlava, 2016;Prem, 2020). ...
... Nondual awareness also involves a softening of self-other boundaries and is, by definition, a transcendent experience. Transcendence implies the engagement of cognitive structures that facilitate meaning (Stellar et al., 2017). The cognitive appraisals associated with gratitude are centered on benefits and may contribute to the shift in meaning that is necessary to transform an assessment of loss to one in which the benefits and value of the relationship are salient. ...
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The present study investigated the relationship between cultivating gratitude and coping with grief. The primary research question guiding this study was: What is the correlation between resilience in grief, transcendent gratitude, and nondual awareness? Five measures were administered to collect data for this study: Grief and Meaning Reconstruction Inventory, Adult Attitude to Grief Scale, Gratitude Questionnaire 6, Transpersonal Gratitude Scale and Nondual Awareness Dimensional Assessment. A diverse demographic pool of survey respondents (n = 619) was recruited to determine what correlations might emerge from the data. Bivariate correlational analysis revealed strong correlations among total scores and specific subscales of grief, gratitude, and nondual awareness. Subscale correlations suggested positive correlations among transcendence, valuing a relationship, resilience, and personal growth; and negative correlations with efforts to control the overwhelming emotions associated with grief. Nondual awareness showed moderate correlations with resilience and personal growth, pointing to the centrality of whole-person transcendence in the association of gratitude with flourishing after profound loss. A regression model demonstrated that gratitude and nondual awareness predicted resilience in coping with grief. Conclusions include the potential value of pre-loss cultivation gratitude to enhancing competence in coping with grief.
... Awe has also been theorized as being a self-transcendent emotion (Chirico & Yaden, 2018;Stellar et al., 2017;Yaden et al., 2017). Awe leads people to transcend their daily mundanities (Shiota et al., 2007) and allows people to integrate themselves into larger groups . ...
... Our findings suggest that more attention should be paid to the role of self-transcendence in inspiration research. Whether other self-transcendent emotions (e.g., compassion, gratitude; Stellar et al., 2017) could promote inspiration merits investigation. ...
... For the post-awe RTs, the emerging adult continued to perform at or near their ceiling, but the younger adult and middle-aged adult demonstrated improvements under the post-awe condition, as hypothesized. In contrast to work by Stellar and colleagues 12 , these results suggest that awe may facilitate focus rather than broaden awareness. Moreover, this effect may be stronger for those whose speeded focused attention performance is weakened due to aging, anxiety or other factors that may reduce focused attention. ...
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Introduction: Although research demonstrates that emotion influences cognitive processing, most investigations have relied on college student samples and focused on happiness over other emotions. Methods: Three non-college student adults completed a flanker task assessing focused attention before and after viewing an awe-inducing video. Measures of reaction time were derived for each person. Results: Differential benefits of awe were observed across the differently aged adults,. The middle-aged adult, whose initial performance was the slowest, improved the most (19%) relative to the 13% improvement by the younger adults and the stable performance for the emerging adult. Conclusions: Unlike other positive emotions that may broaden cognition, awe may help adults to focus their attention. These results suggest an avenue to support adults with attention-related deficits.
... Importantly, recent empirical studies conducted by T. Jiang and Sedikides (2022) found that awe encourages authentic-self pursuit. As such, awe, as a self-transcendent emotion (Chirico & Yaden, 2018;Keltner & Piff, 2020;Stellar et al., 2017), makes people no longer focus on the triviality of moments. In addition, it transcends people with a sense of goodness and benevolence and encourages people to boost their motivation to pursue their authentic selves. ...
Attributing humanness to oneself (i.e., self-humanity) can be malleable and can lead to various crucial outcomes. Researchers have not investigated whether and how awe as a self-related emotion affects people's perception of their own humanness. We proposed two competing hypotheses: awe impairs self-humanity via self-smallness, and awe promotes self-humanity via authentic-self pursuit. Across seven studies (N = 1539), we found that awe is positively related to (Studies 1 and 4) and predicts self-humanity (Studies 2a, 2b, 5, and 6). Moreover, this relationship was mediated by authentic-self pursuit (Studies 3-6) rather than self-smallness (Studies 5 and 6). The effect of awe on authentic-self pursuit and self-humanity held true among the general population (Studies 1-4 and 6) and for a disadvantaged group (i.e., blue-collar workers; Study 5). In addition, we demonstrated that the effect was not driven solely by positive emotions (Studies 1, 2b, and 6). These findings enrich the literature on awe and self-humanity. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2023 APA, all rights reserved).
... Self-transcendence reflects "…something beyond personal benefit, for example, the furtherance of some greater cause, union with a power beyond the self, and/or service to others as an expression of identification beyond the personal ego" (Koltko-Rivera, 2006, p. 305, note 3.). Transcendence has been shown to generate feelings of hope and self-expansion (Chang, 2022), and self-transcendent emotions, such as compassion, gratitude, and awe, are posited to have developed among humans to facilitate social problem solving in contexts such as care taking and cooperation (Stellar et al., 2017). Self-transcendent experiences have been characterized by physiological indicators, such as increased heart rate (cognitive resource allocation), increased physiological arousal, less positive and greater negative affect, and increased likelihood for sharing content, as an indicator of prosociality (Clayton et al., 2021). ...
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Consumer reaction toward corporate social advocacy (CSA) stances can often be swift and visceral. These reactions may be due to messages evoking emotions that are self-transcendent-bigger than the individual and bigger than the company or its products or services. However, no research to date has examined the nature of self-transcendent emotions in CSA messages. Through a content analysis of CSA messages (n = 352), this exploratory study examined characteristics of CSA messages to understand the nature and prevalence of self-transcendent emotional elicitors within company CSA stances-as manifested in both written statements and video messages-which are typically the two mediums that companies use to communicate their CSA stances. Results indicate that most CSA messages do contain transcendent emotional elicitors with appreciation for beauty and excellence being the most prevalent. This study holds implications for research and practice at the intersection of public relations and media psychology.
... Thus, the immediate cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences of gratitude may be specifically beneficial for parents and parentchild interactions. As a self-transcendent emotion, gratitude encourages people to focus on the needs of others rather than themselves (Stellar et al., 2017). To this end, prior research reveals that gratitude not only encourages reciprocity (e.g., returning a favor to one's benefactor), but also paying it forward by promoting greater prosocial behavior to others (not just one's benefactor; Bartlett & DeSteno, 2006).Gratitude has also been linked with greater patience (Dickens & DeSteno, 2016), reduced aggression (DeWall et al., 2011), and more positive construals of events via increased positive emotions (Layous et al., 2022). ...
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Parents are inundated with suggestions to improve their relationships with their children and promote child development, but improving caregiver well-being is often overlooked despite being considered one of the most important methods to promote healthy child development. Drawing on the robust literature on the emotional and relationship benefits of gratitude, we present two studies demonstrating the advantages of gratitude for parents' well-being and family functioning. First, in a 7-day daily experience study conducted in 2018 (N = 270), daily gratitude predicted greater well-being and family functioning, controlling for daily happiness, coder-rated care difficulty, and sociodemographics. Second, in a short-term longitudinal experiment conducted in 2018 (N = 619), participants were randomly assigned to write a gratitude letter or to complete a control activity. In this study, expressing gratitude predicted greater well-being and family functioning 1 week later via increases in positive emotions. Notably, across both studies neither felt nor expressed gratitude referred to one's children; however, the results of our studies suggest that gratitude in general improves parent-child relationships and family well-being. This work provides insights regarding ways to improve parents' well-being without requiring greater effort, energy, or attention to one's children, and it suggests that promoting parents' gratitude in general may benefit the entire family. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2023 APA, all rights reserved).
... In the literature, a widespread consensus exists on the relevance of emotions for pro-social behavior [17][18][19][20]. More specifically, emotion-inducement experiments tend to show that feelings of happiness make individuals more generous. ...
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Our study provides new evidence on the impact of positive emotions on voluntary contributions to public goods in a natural setting. Using a lab-in-field experiment, we induce positive incidental emotions randomly and analyze their effects on donations using a dictator game with multiple beneficiaries. Although we find no significant overall effect of positive incidental emotions on donation levels, our results show a significant shift in the allocation of donations towards the host charity. These findings shed light on the complex role of emotions in donation behavior and can provide valuable insights for organizations seeking to increase charitable giving.
This narrative review aims to contribute to the scientific literature on awe by reviewing seven perspectives on the evolutionary function of awe. Each is presented with accompanying empirical evidence and suggestions for research investigating unanswered questions. Based on the existing perspectives, this review proposes an integrated evolutionary model of awe, postulating the evolutionary selection of awe through three adaptive domains: (1) social cooperation, (2) reflective processing, and (3) signaling suitability as a potential mate.
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Positive emotions are highly valued and frequently sought. Beyond just being pleasant, however, positive emotions may also lead to long-term benefits in important domains, including work, physical health, and interpersonal relationships. Research thus far has focused on the broader functions of positive emotions. According to the broaden-and-build theory, positive emotions expand people's thought-action repertoires and allow them to build psychological, intellectual, and social resources. New evidence suggests that positive emotions - particularly gratitude - may also play a role in motivating individuals to engage in positive behaviors leading to self-improvement. We propose and offer supportive evidence that expressing gratitude leads people to muster effort to improve themselves via increases in connectedness, elevation, humility, and specific negative states including indebtedness.
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This review provides an overview of the research on nonverbal expressions of positive emotions, organised into emotion families, that is, clusters sharing common characteristics. Epistemological positive emotions (amusement, relief, awe, and interest) are found to have distinct, recognisable displays via vocal or facial cues, while the agency-approach positive emotions (elation and pride) appear to be associated with recognisable visual, but not auditory, cues. Evidence is less strong for the prosocial emotions (love, compassion, gratitude, and admiration) in any modality other than touch, and there is little support for distinct recognisable signals of the savouring positive emotions (contentment, sensory pleasure, and desire). In closing, some limitations of extant work are noted and some proposals for future research are outlined.
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Scientists from Einstein to Sagan have linked emotions like awe with the motivation for scientific inquiry, but no research has tested this possibility. Theoretical and empirical work from affective science, however, suggests that awe might be unique in motivating explanation and exploration of the physical world. We synthesize theories of awe with theories of the cognitive mechanisms related to learning, and offer a generative theoretical framework that can be used to test the effect of this emotion on early science learning.
The effect of a grateful outlook on psychological and physical well-being was examined. In Studies 1 and 2, participants were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 experimental conditions (hassles, gratitude listing, and either neutral life events or social comparison); they then kept weekly (Study 1) or daily (Study 2) records of their moods, coping behaviors, health behaviors, physical symptoms, and overall life appraisals. In a 3rd study, persons with neuromuscular disease were randomly assigned to either the gratitude condition or to a control condition. The gratitude-outlook groups exhibited heightened well-being across several, though not all, of the outcome measures across the 3 studies, relative to the comparison groups. The effect on positive affect appeared to be the most robust finding. Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.
In four studies, the authors examined the correlates of the disposition toward gratitude. Study 1 revealed that self-ratings and observer ratings of the grateful disposition are associated with positive affect and well-being prosocial behaviors and traits, and religiousness/spirituality. Study 2 replicated these findings in a large nonstudent sample. Study 3 yielded similar results to Studies 1 and 2 and provided evidence that gratitude is negatively associated with envy and materialistic attitudes. Study 4 yielded evidence that these associations persist after controlling for Extraversion/positive affectivity, Neuroticism/negative affectivity, and Agreeableness. The development of the Gratitude Questionnaire, a unidimensional measure with good psychometric properties, is also described.
On the basis of the proposition that love promotes commitment, the authors predicted that love would motivate approach, have a distinct signal, and correlate with commitment-enhancing processes when relationships are threatened. The authors studied romantic partners and adolescent opposite-sex friends during interactions that elicited love and threatened the bond. As expected, the experience of love correlated with approach-related states (desire, sympathy). Providing evidence for a nonverbal display of love, four affiliation cues (head nods, Duchenne smiles, gesticulation, forward leans) correlated with self-reports and partner estimates of love. Finally, the experience and display of love correlated with commitment-enhancing processes (e.g.. constructive conflict resolution, perceived trust) when the relationship was threatened. Discussion focused on love, positive emotion, and relationships.
Humility is a foundational virtue that counters selfish inclinations such as entitlement, arrogance, and narcissism (Tangney, 2000). We hypothesize that experiences of awe promote greater humility. Guided by an appraisal-tendency framework of emotion, we propose that when individuals encounter an entity that is vast and challenges their worldview, they feel awe, which leads to self-diminishment and subsequently humility. In support of these claims, awe-prone individuals were rated as more humble by friends (Study 1) and reported greater humility across a 2-week period (Study 2), controlling for other positive emotions. Inducing awe led participants to present a more balanced view of their strengths and weaknesses to others (Study 3) and acknowledge, to a greater degree, the contribution of outside forces in their own personal accomplishments (Study 4), compared with neutral and positive control conditions. Finally, an awe-inducing expansive view elicited greater reported humility than a neutral view (Study 5). We also elucidated the process by which awe leads to humility. Feelings of awe mediated the relationship between appraisals (perceptions of vastness and a challenge to one's world view) and humility (Study 4), and self-diminishment mediated the relationship between awe and humility (Study 5). Taken together, these results reveal that awe offers one path to greater humility. (PsycINFO Database Record
Arguably, emotion is always valenced—either pleasant or unpleasant—and dependent on the pleasure system. This system serves adaptive evolutionary functions; relying on separable wanting, liking, and learning neural mechanisms mediated by mesocorticolimbic networks driving pleasure cycles with appetitive, consummatory, and satiation phases. Liking is generated in a small set of discrete hedonic hotspots and coldspots, while wanting is linked to dopamine and to larger distributed brain networks. Breakdown of the pleasure system can lead to anhedonia and other features of affective disorders. Eudaimonia and well-being are difficult to study empirically, yet whole-brain computational models could offer novel insights (e.g., routes to eudaimonia such as caregiving of infants or music) potentially linking eudaimonia to optimal metastability in the pleasure system.