Thursday, August 9, 2012

How to make time stand still

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.

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-inducing commercial showed people encountering images such waterfalls and whales on a city street, whereas the happiness-inducing 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. Life may be short, but that doesn't mean we can't feel like it's endless, once in awhile.

Want an easy way to feel more awe right now? Watch the Olympics. Here is a slow motion clip of McKayla Maroney flying off the vault in the team competition (her "not impressed" expression may be all over the internet, but we are impressed!)

Photo by Lionoche.


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


  1. I've always noticed that time passes by quickly when I'm happy, and since that's almost all the time, I never have enough time to do anything. Now I'll try to get out of my daily routine and do something fun and awe-inspiring, maybe then time will pass by slowly and let me enjoy every second of it.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ariyana! That's true that time always seems to pass more quickly when we want it to be slow (and slow when we want it to be fast!). So the best we can do, like you said, is try to savor the experiences that we do have time for, rather than worrying about squeezing everything in. And I think that in addition to seeking out awe by getting out of our routines, it's also sometimes possible to experience awe right in the midst of those seemingly mundane moments. It's just a matter of perspective.

  2. Thinking about those times when time crawls, I realize that it happens most when I am intensely self-aware; when being embarrassed or bored, for instance. And when time flies, it's the opposite; time flies when I have been far less aware of my self, and my attention is engaged externally.

    Awe makes one self-aware. For instance, we feel 'small' in the presence of something 'expansive'- we are made very aware of our relation to the expansive thing.

    On the other hand, 'fun' puts our attention on something external or at least, something that takes the focus away from 'self'.

    Could it be the perceived rate of the passage of time is somehow tied to the strength of our focus on self?

    1. That's a great question. It does seem like heightened self-awareness could slow the perception of time, whereas when we're fully engaged in an activity time may seem to fly by (I think this would be consistent with Csíkszentmihályi's conception of "flow").

      Looking at it this way, I would actually guess that an awe-inducing experience itself might be perceived as having passed more rather than less quickly, though this would not necessarily lead to more time pressure and impatience, since time could still feel abundant. I also think that awe might be associated with diminished self-awareness - or, as you said, a sense of oneself as being part of something larger, as opposed to narrow self-consciousness.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. I've slowly learned that, whatever I do that makes we suddenly say, "Whoa! Three hours have passed and I never noticed it! It seemed like maybe 15 minutes," I'm enjoying life.

    I try to do more of those things...if I "have" the time.

    The "time is money" metaphor seems pervasive in our kulch: I'm spending too much time here; I'm saving time there; I have given a few moments of my time to make a comment here. Etc.

    I stumbled onto this blog and it totally RAWKS! I could see myself "spending" more time here...and not noticing the time slip by.

    1. Thanks Michael! We hope you do spend more time here!

      And yes, the time is money metaphor does seem to contribute to our concern with not wasting time, though as you said, sometimes the most enjoyable moments happen when we're not paying attention to time at all.

  4. I'm awed at how quickly the International Olympic Committee moved to block that video. And that they would.

    1. Thanks for letting me know - I didn't realize. I guess awe is a precious commodity.