If you’re feeling pressed for time, you’re not alone. Surveys show most working Americans feel that way. But what if there were a way to expand those precious minutes and hours? New research from Stanford GSB suggests there may be one: elicit a sense of awe. Experiencing something awe-inspiring — whether it’s the Grand Canyon, a soaring cathedral, or a Puccini aria — can expand perceptions of time, enhancing quality of life. The key, says Jennifer Aaker, Stanford GSB’s General Atlantic Professor of Marketing and an author of a new paper on the subject, is that awe makes us feel small, not larger than life, the way happiness can. “When you feel small, there’s a reapportioning of what’s out there,” she says. “Time is reapportioned also.”
The study, to be published in the journal Psychological Science, defines awe as something that is both vast (in size, scope, number, ability, or importance) and capable of altering one’s view of the world. To calculate the effects of awe on how people perceive and use time, Aaker — along with lead author Melanie Rudd of Stanford GSB’s PhD program, and Kathleen D. Vohs, associate professor from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management — conducted three experiments.
In the first, they sought to assess whether awe would be more likely than happiness to enhance the perception of available time. They asked 63 students to watch a 60-second television ad. One group watched a commercial depicting people encountering “awesome” images — waterfalls, whales, and space exploration. The other group watched a commercial, which showed individuals crossing paths with a parade of happy, brightly dressed people tossing confetti. Afterwards, they all rated their agreement with a series of beliefs, including four key variations on the idea: “I have lots of time in which I can get things done.”
Consistently, subjects who had watched the “awe” commercial agreed more strongly with the statements relating to ample time than those who had watched the “happy” ad. “When you feel awe, you feel very present — it captivates you in the current moment,” says Rudd. “And when you are so focused on the here and now, the present moment is expanded — and time along with it.”
The second experiment sought to determine whether people who experience awe would feel less impatient, as well as be more inclined to volunteer their time to charity. First, each of 86 student subjects was asked to write a personal narrative. Half described an experience that had filled them with awe — defined as “a response to things perceived as vast and overwhelming that alters the way you understand the world” — and half wrote about something that made them happy. Then they had to fill out a series of surveys, rating their feelings of impatience, their willingness to volunteer time and donate money to a worthy cause, and their overall feelings of excitement, awe, pride, and happiness.
Those who wrote about awe were more likely to craft essays about nature, art or music, or the accomplishments of others, while those who wrote about happiness were more likely to write about social interactions or personal accomplishments. But regardless of the essay topic, those in the awe group reported significantly less impatience than those who had recounted happy events. Furthermore, the awe essay writers indicated they’d be more willing to volunteer their time — but no more willing to donate money — than the happiness essay writers. That supports the argument that awe makes people feel richer in hours, since participants were willing to be generous only with their time, not with their pocketbooks.
Building on the first two experiments, the third sought to demonstrate that awe, by expanding the perception of available time, would prompt participants to choose experiential over material gifts. In other words, someone who didn’t feel pressed for time would value a temporal, sensory experience over a concrete possession.
To test the hypothesis, subjects were instructed to read one of two stories and attempt to empathize with the main character. The first story, meant to elicit awe, described climbing the Eiffel Tower for an expansive view of Paris. The second described ascending an unnamed tower for a view of a generic landscape. Neither story mentioned the word “awe.” Then subjects rated their agreement with various statements about the availability of time, including “Time is slipping away” and “Time is boundless.” They were also asked to select between a pair of equally priced hypothetical gifts, such as a watch and a Broadway show ticket, or a scientific calculator and a professional massage.
Like the earlier experiments, the third revealed a strong causal link between awe and the sense of more plentiful time. It also showed that members of the “awe” group were more likely than the neutral group to choose an experience — such as dinner out or a movie — over a material possession, such as a new jacket or backpack. Additionally, those who expressed greater feelings of awe reported greater life satisfaction, at least momentarily.
The results of the three experiments proved more conclusive than the researchers had anticipated. “The power of the [awe] effect was surprising,” says Aaker. “It was quite robust.”
But how easy is it to generate awe? In a 2003 paper, “Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion,”, UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt, a former University of Virginia psychology professor now at New York University’s Stern School of Business, described awe as “fleeting and rare.” They examined the history of awe, tracing its role in ancient religious texts, including the Hindu Bhagavad Gita and the Christian Bible, as well as in influencing political and social order through charismatic leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Philosophers have also tackled the subject, noting that awe is most easily felt in solitude, such as when hiking in the mountains or viewing a work of art. Edmund Burke wrote that awe — which he called “the sublime” — is also more likely to arise from something obscure and surprising, rather than something clear and expected. Interestingly, one often-cited physical response that may best distinguish awe from other emotions is the presence of goose bumps.
Those goose bumps may not be as arbitrary or spontaneous as we might imagine. “[Awe] is more of a mindset than we think,” says Aaker. “This research suggests you can cultivate it in similar ways, as you do gratefulness or happiness. Yet, when it is present, awe can transform people and reorient their lives, goals, and values.”
Future studies will examine how malleable awe is, and how it can change other perceptions and behaviors. The larger goal, she says, is to understand how well various emotions — awe, gratefulness, peacefulness, or excitement — serve us in different situations. For now, perhaps the best we can do is watch a sunset or listen to a Brahms piano concerto. Then we’ll feel like we have all the time in the world.