As anyone trying to juggle a career, family and sleep will tell you: The one universal truth of modern life is that there are not enough hours in the day to do everything that needs to be done. If only we could stop time in its tracks or, at least, slow it down — wouldn’t that be nice?
Maybe we can. Though scientists have yet to discover a way to add more hours to the day — if only — a new study by psychologists at Stanford University and the University of Minnesota brings us one step closer to that elusive goal. If you want to slow time down, then add a splash of awe to your otherwise hyperactive life.
In the study, published in Psychological Science, a leading psychology journal, researchers Melanie Rudd, Kathleen D. Vohs, and Jennifer Aaker found that people who experience awe, by watching a 60-second commercial featuring stunning scenes from nature, feel time passing more slowly than those who experience another more generic positive emotion, happiness. In a series of three experiments, involving anywhere from 63 to 105 participants, the researchers determined that experiencing awe not only elongates an individual’s perception of the living moment, but makes people feel less impatient and more willing to volunteer their time to help others.
“Experiencing awe heightens people’s focus on the present,” says Ms. Rudd, the lead author of the study. When you are more conscious of the present moment, you “feel that your experiences are fuller, that more can happen or be accomplished during a period of time,” she says.
Awe is a special and little-understood emotion that operates on the fringes of human experience. Triggered by an intense event — like being in the presence of stunning beauty, witnessing an incredible feat, or feeling the touch of the divine — awe leads to the recognition that there is something much greater than the self out there, something vast and unknowable.
“Awe is the most ‘spiritual’ of the positive emotions,” writes Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant in his 2008 book “Spiritual Evolution.” Falling under its spell can change a person’s life.
Two of the most famous awe experiences in religious history were transformative and transcendental: the conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus and the enlightenment of the Buddha beneath the Bodhi tree. Several years ago, a modern Buddhist explained to neuroscientists what awe feels like in meditation: “There’s a sense of timelessness and infinity. It feels like I am part of everyone and everything in existence.”
Awe connects us to others and, as the study found, can lead to generosity and altruism.
“If you feel like you have more time, you are more willing to give your time away to help others,” says Ms. Vohs, one of the co-authors of the study. Citing a classic study of modern psychology, she notes that when people are pressed for time, they don’t those help those in distress.
In the Good Samaritan Experiment of 1973, Princeton psychologists John M. Darley and C. Daniel Batson asked seminary students to prepare a short talk on a biblical theme and to walk over to a nearby building to present the talk. Some of the students were told to rush over to the building. Along the way, they came across a slumped over man in desperate need of help. Most of the hurried seminarians passed right by the man. Some actually stepped over him. Only 10 percent of the rushed students stopped to help compared to 63 percent of those who weren’t rushed. Ironically, some were hurrying to deliver a talk on the good Samaritan parable.
The feeling that time is scarce not only takes a toll on our moral decision-making, but also on our health.
According to Gallup, 60 percent of working Americans feel pressed for time on a daily basis, and the number of Americans who feel “always rushed” has been on the rise in recent years. A 2008 Pew Research Center study emphasizes how valuable time is to the average person: 68 percent of middle-class Americans are more concerned with having free time than they are with securing career success, having children or getting rich.
“People in modern times are often left struggling to keep up with the pace of technology and meet the expectations of a society that places an extremely high value on time and efficiency,” Ms. Rudd says. The rise of instant communication through texting, email, and social media — all facilitated by the omnipresent smartphone — has sped up the pace of day-to-day life, filling our hours with much more activity than ever before.
People who are time-starved, according to various studies, are more likely to eat fast food, delay scheduling a doctor’s appointment and spend money on products rather than experiences, which are time-consuming but also more rewarding.
Can just 60 seconds of awe changes a person’s outlook on life? In the study, people who felt awe reported a momentary boost in their subjective well-being and became more willing to spend money on experiences, such as a massage or dinner out, than on products, maybe a jacket or an iTunes card.
The French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “The American is always in a hurry.” A touch of awe can slow us down and make us not only happier, but better decision-makers to boot.