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Time is of the Awesence

written by Genevieve Douglass 12 November 2012

Genevieve Douglass, MAPP '10, is a positive psychology coach living in New York City. She considers her work to be helping individuals find their authentic selves. Read more on her web site. Full bio.

Her articles are here and here (with Shannon Polly).

Two weeks ago I gained first-hand experience of Hurricane Sandy, the largest hurricane to hit New York City in a long time. In the midst of subways being shut down and businesses being closed for days on end, there was no rush to get things done. No rush to be anywhere. For the first time in, dare I say, years, I was actually ahead of schedule on a few things. I simply felt like I had time.

Time is the currency we’re all given, an allowance from the universe. Every day every single person receives the same amount, but we differ in how much of it we think we have. Feeling like we don’t have enough time is associated with an array of physical maladies such as hypertension, headaches, and poor sleep quality. When we think we don’t have time, we are less likely to help others and volunteer, and we are more likely to eat fast food.

Professors Melanie Rudd and Jennifer Aaker at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Kathleen Vohs at the University of Minnesota School of Management have recently addressed the question, “When do people feel as if they are rich in time?” Do subjective experiences change our perceptions of the amount of time we have? In particular, they hypothesized that the feeling of awe could expand the perception of time. Think about your own experiences with awe: the ticking clock doesn’t seem to matter.

The experience of awe is defined by two components: it is something that involves vastness, for example in size, scope, complexity, and ability, and it also requires recalibrating our understanding of the world. You might experience awe when witnessing a world record being broken, when seeing the Grand Canyon, or during childbirth.

The researchers designed a multistage study to test their hypothesis.

Stage One

In the first experiment, they first primed participants to feel rushed by having them create phrases from word sets like this one: “not available enough time much.” (Do you feel rushed, now? Sorry about that!) Some participants then watched a 60-second commercial eliciting awe while a control group watched one eliciting happiness. Then they were asked to fill out a survey about the product brand (this was to camouflage the purpose of the experiment). Finally they filled out a survey about personal beliefs that included questions about perception of time.

Results showed that the participants in the awe condition did, indeed, perceive time as being more abundant than those in the happiness condition. Additionally, greater feelings of awe were associated with greater feelings of time abundance.

Stage Two

In the second study, the researchers extended their research, examining whether awe affects impatience and willingness to donate time. To induce happiness or awe, participants were asked to write about an experience in which they experienced their assigned emotion. It is interesting to note that the writings about awe fell into just a handful of categories: being in nature, exposure to art or music, personal accomplishments, observing other people’s accomplishments, or social interactions. They then filled out surveys addressing their level of patience and their willingness to donate time and money.

Participants in the awe condition felt less impatient than those in the happiness condition, and their level of impatience predicted their willingness to donate time. However, there was no significant difference in willingness to donate money, showing that awe was specifically associated with time generosity, not generosity in general. Thus, it seems that awe creates less impatience, which then makes people more generous with their time.

Stage Three

The researchers conducted one last experiment, looking at how awe affects life satisfaction and whether people prefer experiences or material goods. Participants first read a story, having been told to try to feel what the main character was feeling. The story was either about seeing Paris from the Eiffel Tower (to induce awe), or about seeing a plain landscape from a non-specific tower (neutral condition). They then filled out a survey capturing their perception of time availability and momentary life satisfaction. They also made hypothetical choices between experiences (for example, a show on Broadway or a professional massage) or equivalently priced material items (for example, a watch or a scientific calculator). Last, they filled out a survey rating their feelings to ensure that the awe manipulation worked. (It did.)

As the researchers hypothesized, awe caused people to feel that they had more time, and the feeling of having more time led to both greater life satisfaction and a preference for experiences over material objects.

So What?

I think part of my hurricane experience was simply due to the city shutting down, but I couldn’t help being affected by the novelty I was seeing. The city had seemed somewhat indestructible. It’s New York City, after all, this famous place that I’ve heard fantastic stories about since I was little and seen in countless films. Now, many downtown buildings will be out of commission for months, thousands are without power and heat, and hundreds of people have completely lost their homes and memories. This recalibration may have been enough to elicit feelings of awe from myself and many other New Yorkers.

But, out of the devastation have arisen many other reasons for awe and elevation — people saving each other, opening their homes to those without heat or water, volunteering their time to put together collections and make deliveries to those in the areas of destruction.

I hope that it doesn’t take a hurricane for me to pause and reprioritize my life, next time. Perhaps just taking a few minutes to remember my visits to Niagara Falls, the Smokey Mountains, or the west coast redwood forests would do the trick. Maybe writing about these times or looking at pictures would be better still. But, better than that might be actually going to see the Eiffel Tower or the Grand Canyon in person.

After all, we only have so much time. As Annie Dillard famously said, “How we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.”


Rudd, M., Vohs, K., & Aaker, S. (In press). Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time,
Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being
. Psychological Science.


Hurricane Sandy courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Volunteering time for Habitat for Humanity courtesy of harmon
View from the Eiffel Tower courtesy of Chris Pearson
Street-side sharing courtesy of Jorene Rene
Redwood forest courtesy of Kai Schreiber

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1 comment

Jan 13 November 2012 - 10:16 pm

Great article. I especially appreciated the research method summaries. Fascinating. I experience more moments (suspended time) of awe now than at any other time in my life. I wonder sometimes if it is because I am older and wiser? More knowledgeable about well being? Less stressed? I hope that the awe research continues. Thanks Genna and PPND for this summary!


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