In Love and War

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How to Make Time Stand Still

Life is short, but awe is long.

It often feels like there just aren't enough hours in the day to accomplish all the things we want to accomplish, let alone find a moment to relax. The demands of work and social life, combined with our basic needs for sleep, food, and exercise, can quickly add up and overflow, producing the sense that time is constantly slipping away and we're constantly running to catch up. Time may be limited, but it doesn't have to always feel that way. New research suggests that our state of mind can change the way we perceive and experience time, and in turn, make us happier and more giving.

At certain moments in your life, you may have had the feeling that time stood still. Maybe it was the first time you saw the Grand Canyon, or the moment you realized you were falling in love. These experiences are often those of awe, an emotion elicited by perceptions of vastness (either in size or significance) and a need to alter one's existing way of seeing the world to accommodate this new perception. In a forthcoming paper, researchers Melanie Rudd, Kathleen Vohs, and Jennifer Aaker examined whether the emotion of awe, compared to happiness and neutral states, might reduce people's sense of time pressure and consequently make them more willing to volunteer their time, choose experiences over material objects, and enjoy greater life satisfaction.

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To examine these hypotheses, the researchers conducted three experiments. In the first experiment, participants started off by unscrambling sentences like "not available enough time much" so that everyone would start off at the same time-pressured baseline. Next, participants were randomly assigned to watch either an awe-eliciting or happiness-eliciting commercial on TV. The awe-eliciting commercial showed people encountering images such waterfalls and whales on a city street, whereas the happiness-eliciting commercial showed a parade with rainbow confetti and celebration. Finally participants filled out a survey, embedded in which was a measure of time perception with items such as "Time is boundless" and "I have lots of time in which I can get things done."As predicted, participants who were in a state of awe, compared to those induced to feel happiness, felt that time was more expansive.

What good does an expansive sense of time do? The researchers examined this question in the next two experiments. In the second experiment, participants wrote about a personal experience of awe (in the awe condition) or happiness (in the happiness condition). A measure of impatience was used to assess time perception, followed by a measure of willingness to donate time or money. Awe-induced participants felt less impatient, and they were also more willing to to donate their time to help others (the resource that awe helped to replenish), but not more likely to donate money (which is less relevant to time). A statistical test of mediation showed that participants who were in a state of awe were more willing to give their time because they felt like they had more of it.

In the final experiment, participants read either an awe-inspiring or neutral story, followed by questionnaires assessing time perception, life satisfaction, and hypothetical choices about purchasing either experiences or material goods (e.g., Broadway tickets or a watch). Awe again led to expanded time perceptions, which is turn increased perceived life satisfaction and interest in experiences rather than material goods.

These results suggest that one way to feel like we have all the time in the world (even if we don't) is to do things that inspire awe. It's easy to get caught up in the routines of everyday life and miss out on potentially wondrous experiences, some of which may be right under our noses. The mere fact of our existence, for one, can be enough to inspire awe (see this previous post). Awe may not be helpful in all situations, the researchers note–sometimes it's a good thing to feel like time is limited, so that we can get down to business when necessary. But more often than not, we could all probably use a little more awe.  

Reference:

Rudd, M., Vohs, K.D., & Aaker, J. (2012). Awe expands people's perception of time, alters decision-making, and enhances well-being. Psychological Science

This post previously appeared on Psych Your Mind.

Photo by Lionoche.

Juliana Breines, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral fellow at Brandeis University.

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