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Feeling Short on Time? Try Something Awe-Inspiring

A study suggests that the experiences that make us notice the vastness of the universe also make us feel there’s more time in the day.
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Mountains by Linda Tanner-555.jpg

A view of Moro Rock in Sequioa National Park. Photo by Linda Tanner.

Always plugged in and constantly juggling tasks at work and at home, many of us feel there aren’t enough hours in the day.

But wouldn’t it be awesome to feel like you had more time? In fact, that feeling might only be as far as a trip to the mountains, the sea, or a place with a clear sky where you can see the stars.

A new study suggests that the experience of awe—which psychologists define as the feeling we get when we come across something so strikingly vast in number, scope, or complexity that it alters the way we understand the world—may help relieve feelings of impatience. What’s more, it might make us more generous with how we spend our time, and improve our overall well-being.

All the time in the world

In one part of the study, researchers induced feelings of awe in participants by showing them video clips of people encountering tremendous things like waterfalls and whales; while members of a control group saw video clips of people surrounded by confetti in a joyful parade.

“Awe-eliciting experiences might offer one effective solution to the feelings of time starvation that plague so many people in modern life.”

One group saw images that inspired awe while the other saw images that inspired happiness. The results, published in the journal Psychological Science, show that members of the first group were more likely to report feeling like they had more time.

“Awe-eliciting experiences might offer one effective solution to the feelings of time starvation that plague so many people in modern life,” write the researchers, who are based at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.

Stargazers in soup kitchens

This led the researchers to predict that people who experience awe would be less likely to feel impatient—since people feel impatient when they think they’re short on time—and would be more willing to devote time to activities like volunteering.

To test this hypothesis, they instructed participants to write stories about events in their lives. One group was prompted to write about an experience that was vast and altered their perceptions of the world, while the other group was told to write about a time when they felt contentment or joy. Then, all participants completed a survey assessing their impatience and willingness to lend time to others.

As the researchers predicted, those who wrote about awe were less likely to feel impatient and more willing to volunteer than study participants who wrote about happiness.

However, experiences of awe did not make people more likely to donate money, suggesting that they don't make people more generous in general. Instead, it was the sense that they had more time to spend that seems to have made participants more willing to lend a hand.

“The idea that an emotion can alleviate this problem is an incredible idea to me.”

Experience over objects

In another experiment, the researchers induced awe in some people—by having them read a story about ascending the Eiffel Tower and getting a high-up view of Paris—but not others. Afterwards, they found that members of the group that read the story reported feeling more satisfied with their lives than the other one. Also, when given a choice between material goods and positive experiences—such as a watch vs. tickets to a Broadway show—the group that read the story was more likely to choose the positive experiences.

Prior research has found that positive experiences are more likely than material objects to bring us happiness. After analyzing their data, the researchers conclude that the higher life satisfaction and preference for experiences over objects they found among the first group could be explained by the fact that they felt they had more time on their hands.

Melanie Rudd, the lead author of the study and a PhD candidate in marketing at Stanford University, says the results show how something as subtle as our perception of time can have a big influence on our lives.

“Our willingness to volunteer to help other people and even our well-being,” are all affected, she says. “That an emotion can alleviate this problem is an incredible idea to me.”

She suggests that people evoke more feelings of awe in their lives by exposing themselves to nature, art, and music.


Stacey Kennelly wrote this article for Greater Good, the UC Berkeley-based magazine that covers research into the roots of compassion, happiness, and altruism. This article is republished through a special collaboration between Greater Good and YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.


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