Dr. Jennifer Stellar

Professional Biography

Dr. Jennifer Stellar is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto and the director of the Health, Emotions, and Altruism Lab (HEAL). She received her PhD in Social-Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley and her B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. Living harmoniously in large-scale societies requires individuals to suppress their more selfish inclinations and prioritize the welfare of others. Dr. Stellar’s research examines the forces that drive prosociality and morality. Specifically, she investigates how prosocial emotions (e.g., compassion, awe, etc.) promote empathy and altruism toward another person, encourage cooperation and cohesion within groups, and enhance the health and well-being of the individual. She also explores how individuals encourage moral behavior and uphold moral norms though expressing moral outrage toward transgressors, relying on moral character to inform other impressions, and allowing others to regain moral status through redemption. These projects aim to answer a fundamental question about humans—how do we transcend our own self-focus to care about other people, groups, and society as a whole?

Learn more at https://jenniferstellar.com/

Reflection Questions

When is a time that you felt awed? Think about the nature of that experience and why you might have felt that way.

How can you feel awe more often in your everyday life?

What things do you personally find most beautiful? How can you attend to these things more often?

In what way might awe and compassion be related?

How often do you feel compassionate? How might you promote more feelings of compassion day to day?

Dr. Stellar discusses emotions that are not strictly ‘positive’ or ‘negative.’ What are some other mixed emotions, other than awe? When have you felt these?

Why might transcending our ‘self’ be a good thing? What might be the risks?

What is the role of Western science when it comes to elucidating emotions? What might be some of its limitations?

Dr. Stellar points out that awe and compassion can be good for our mental health. However, she also explains that they are not purely positive emotions. How might we go beyond the assessment of emotions as ‘good’ or ‘useful’ and find appreciation for all emotional states?

In your opinion, why do human beings do kind things for one another? Where does that urge come from?

Further Resources

Find a list of Dr. Stellar’s publications on her website.

Awe with Dr. Jennifer Stellar: The Immune System, Body, & Mind – Dr. Stellar shares information on the impact awe can have on a person ranging from their immune system, body, and mind, as part of the Awe & Resilience Symposium

In her 2016 TED talk, ” The positive effects of positive emotions“, Dr. Stellar illuminates how truly awe-inspiring experiences may mean more than we realize for our physical and mental health.

Introducing Dr. Stellar

Listen to Dr. Stellar explain how her early interests in both psychology and anthropology led her to study the ‘positive side of human nature.’ Where does good behaviour come from and why do we do it?

What are Pro-social Emotions?

Dr. Stellar lists some of the specific emotions she studies that are known as pro-social, because they promote altruistic behaviour. These can also be called ‘self-transcendent emotions.’ Dr. Stellar believes they play an important role in our understanding of wellbeing.

The Interconnected Self

Dr. Stellar explains the reason behind the new title of ‘self-transcendent’ emotions: these emotions make our sense of self less central to our perspective and decisions. They blur the boundaries between self and other, allowing for a shift in focus. In this way, reduced salience of the self can sometimes be a very good thing.

What is Awe?

Dr. Stellar explains the difficulty in defining this multifaceted emotion. She sees it as having two essential aspects: a reaction to perceiving vastness and a feeling of incomprehensibility of the thing encountered. Artists and writers have been interested in awe for a long time, but science has yet to fully conceptualize it.

How Can We Cultivate Awe?

Dr. Stellar explains the importance of paying attention in order to cultivate awe in our everyday lives. It’s not that we are incapable of awe; it’s just that we are often too busy to notice awe-inspiring aspects of life. Make awe a part of your routine by dedicating time to that which you personally find beautiful and inspiring. Allow yourself to be absorbed by beauty. 

The Complexity of Emotions

Dr. Stellar discusses the way in which some emotions, such as awe, defy the categories of ‘positive’ or ‘negative.’ Depending on specific contexts and the way a person handles it, awe and other emotions can have very different consequences for our wellbeing.

Connecting with Others During the Pandemic

Dr. Stellar reflects on life during the pandemic, during which we have lost precious moments of interaction that had allowed us to feel grateful and appreciative of others. She suggests seeking out these moments even under our limiting circumstances.