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Free Your Mind: Experience Awe, Have More Time

• October 08, 2012 • 4:00 AM

If it feels like the day isn’t long enough to do everything you’d like, research suggests adding a dash of wonder to stretch out the moment.

I don’t tend to budget a lot of time for trolling YouTube. But the other day, I cashed in four minutes and twenty-three seconds to watch a video my husband sent me: a short film in which the Scottish cycling wunderkind Danny MacAskill pedals around San Francisco, performing acrobatic feats that make you consider the urban landscape in a whole new way.

I’m your typical time-crunched working mother, my day jammed with day-care pickups and drop-offs, writing, meal prep, chasing an energetic 2-year-old boy. Squeezing in the bare necessities of my personal happiness—a daily swim, a real conversation with my husband, and a bedtime book (or three) with my son—is an ongoing struggle. Yet somehow, marveling at MacAskill didn’t feel like a waste. Instead, it made me feel light, sort of suspended. Why?

Psychologists at Stanford and the University of Minnesota may have an explanation: awe. Time may fly when you’re having fun. But it crawls—in the best way possible—when you glimpse the Grand Canyon, watch someone perform an incredible athletic feat, or listen to a masterful piece of music. That, in turn, may help us make better choices.

In the psychologists’ study, published this summer in Psychological Science, participants were shown commercials, then asked questions about time. Those who watched awe-inducing videos—which showed things like waterfalls, whales, and astronauts in space—or were asked to recall an awe-eliciting experience reported feeling more time-rich and less impatient. The group was more likely to say that they would volunteer their time to help others, since they felt less pressure from the clock. And they were more likely to report that they felt satisfied with life. (Here, awe is defined as “the emotion that arises when one encounters something so strikingly vast that it provokes a need to update one’s mental schemas.”)

According to lead researcher MelanieRudd, our perception of time availability has a big impact on our actions: whether we choose to stop and help someone instead of rush past, whether we cook a family meal or grab fast food, whether we opt to enjoy an experience instead of the cheap gratification of buying something. “[E]xperiencing awe heightens people’s focus on the present,” Rudd told me. “It captivates people’s attention with what is currently happening with them and around them.” By eliciting the feeling that time is more plentiful, awe may make you more productive—and, in turn, life will be more satisfying. If this bears out, it could be particularly important for the more than half of all Americans who say they feel they lack enough time in daily life.

In their experiments, Rudd and her colleagues found that awe is very distinct from happiness. Though both are positive emotions, happiness doesn’t expand your sense of time (and cause these resulting behaviors) the way awe does. Altruistic behavior, however, may affect us in a way similar to awe: studies suggest that when we help people, we also feel like we have more time—instead of wasting the hours at our disposal, we are accomplishing something with them.

As Rudd recognizes, there are possible drawbacks: a perceived increase of time availability might encourage procrastination. (Maybe I can watch two MacAskill videos before getting back to work!) Her follow-up research will explore how shifting perceptions of time can impact productivity, task performance, and creativity.

Rudd says that putting yourself in new situations, going to new places, and meeting new people helps increase your chances of encountering awe.

Or you can just go on YouTube. Tell your boss you’re not wasting time—you’re making it.

Bonnie Tsui
Bonnie Tsui writes frequently for The New York Times and The Atlantic; her next book is a collection of essays on swimming.

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