My students and I just spent about ten days in Ghana, gaining insights into this wonderful country’s political, economic, and cultural history. The first thing that strikes you about Ghana is how friendly its people are. Starting with the immigration officer, I encountered smiling faces and helpful hands all the way down to the receptionist at the hotel who checked me in. Researchers find that helpful, altruistic, people are happier than those who are not and thus, it’s not surprising that Ghana is among the happiest nations in West Africa.
Another thing that strikes you about Ghana is how slow-paced life is out there. The waiter at the restaurant took a solid 40 minutes to serve me my meal of Banku and Tilapia. Similarly, the street vendor took her own sweet time to pick out the mangoes for my consumption.
Within an hour of soaking in the Ghanaian culture and sun, a question popped into my head: Could there be a connection between pace-of-life and happiness? Specifically, are people happier when life is slow-paced?
To address this question, it is useful to look at findings on the link between feelings of awe and perceptions of time. In a recent paper, my colleagues, Melanie Rudd, Kathleen Vohs, and Jennifer Aaker reported that the experience of awe slows down perceptions of time, such that people believe that they have more time on their hands when they have just experienced awe.
At first glance, it might seem odd that awe should have anything to do with perceptions of time. However, if you think a little more about it, it does make sense. Typically, the feeling of awe is induced by the perception that one is in the presence of something bigger and grander than oneself—such as an imposing mountain, a beautiful sunset, or a mind-bending concept. In the presence of such a “force,” you are better able to put your own trials and tribulations in perspective: you recognize that, in the grand scheme of things, your problems and challenges are not as significant as they appear to be in your default state of self-centeredness. From a self-centered perspective, we lie at the center of the universe and thus, our problems and goals appear all-important. Awe allows us to step outside of such a self-centered perspective by presenting a grander vision to us; it makes us recognize, in a good way, that we don’t need to take ourselves too seriously. And in enabling the adoption of this broader perspective, awe allows us approach our problems and challenges with less seriousness and more serenity, thus making it seem like we have more time on our hands to do the things we want (or have) to do. (Rudd et al. propose a different mechanism by which awe impacts perceptions of time, but I believe that their explanation is compatible with mine.)
If awe slows down perceptions of time by lowering the perceived seriousness of life’s challenges, then surely awe should also enhance happiness levels, since the less serious our problems appear to be, the more relaxed we will feel. Indeed, in one study, Rudd et al. find that those who experienced awe (as opposed to a neutral mood) felt more satisfied with their life.
At first glance, it may be surprising that a non-egocentric emotion such as awe should be a potent happiness-enhancer; after all, most people believe—judging from their responses in surveys—that it is fulfillment of egocentric desires, such as, the desire for of wealth, fame, power, beauty and control, that leads to happiness. But consider this: awe is only one of several non-egotistical emotions—two others being love and gratitude—that have been proven to enhance happiness. In on-going and exciting work, Sonja Lyubomirsky and Joseph Chancellor, are discovering that another non-egotistical emotion—humility—may have a similarly salubrious effect on happiness.
If non-egotistical emotions enhance happiness by helping us realize that we needn’t take our problems and challenges as seriously as we normally do, then anything else that helps us adopt the same light-hearted perspective should have a similarly positive effect on happiness.
Could being in the presence of people who take it slow and easy—as opposed to being surrounded by those who are in a big rush—help us adopt this perspective?
It could, but only if being surrounded by such people leads you to think that, if they do not take their problems and goals so seriously as to be in a big rush, then perhaps you shouldn’t take your problems and goals so seriously either. Objectively speaking, the typical Ghanaian’s problems are arguably more serious than our own, given that Ghana is a developing country in which a far greater proportion of people are struggling merely to make ends meet. Thus, you could justifiably adopt the perspective I have just mentioned.
However, being surrounded by a slow-paced life could lead you to take the opposite view as well; it could remind you of how much more difficult it is to get others to work at the pace at which you normally operate, thus making you feel that your talents and skills are “being wasted” here. This, in turn, should lead you to feel not just unhappy, but also rushed because you feel like you “haven’t accomplished anything today”.
Which perspective are you more likely to take?
Clearly, both perspectives seem equally justified, but one of them holds greater promise if you want to be successful. Perhaps somewhat counter intuitively, findings show that it is when you find yourself adopting the happier perspective—the perspective that allows you to conclude that your problems and goals are not as important as you typically assume them to be—and thus, you perceive time to slow down, that you are more likely to be successful. Indeed, even if your life is, in fact, fast-paced—and thus, to the external observer, you day seems action-packed—it is when you subjectively perceive it to be slow-paced (or relaxed) that you are likely to succeed in your endeavors.
“But how can I possibly adopt the perspective that my life is slow-paced when, in fact, it is the opposite!?,” you may ask.
One option is to actively inculcate feelings of awe in your life. Perhaps the most reliable way to do this is to spend more time tuning into nature, since many things in nature—from the sight of starts to the sound of thunder—are awe-inspiring. Another option is to visit a culture or a country in which life is slow-paced and remind yourself that, if other people can afford to take it slow and easy, so can you.
Interested in these topics? Go here for my new (and free!) online course on happiness