Finally, they took a survey rating their agreement on various personal questions; embedded carefully in the quiz were four items designed to gauge the perceived presence of time. As expected, students in the awe condition did in fact find time more plentiful than those in the happiness condition. After controlling for the potential confounding variable of awe’s positive valence with the happiness condition, and priming the students for time-constraint to keep the old ‘chicken and the egg’ phenomenon from muddying up the data, the researchers found that awe did indeed increase the perception of time availability.
Further studies induced awe and happiness in different ways (such as having students write about a time when they felt the emotion), and took things a bit further to see if participants giddy with an awe-induced perception of time would be less irritable, and more willing to volunteer their time. The researchers found once again that awe (vs. happiness) gave participants a greater sense of time-availability and rendered them less irritable and more willing to give of their time. (But fundraisers take note: people in the awe condition were no more likely to donate money.)
One interesting downside noted by the researchers: being stuck in the present has been linked to failures at self-regulation in prior studies. So it’s possible that an experience of awe may prolong the present to such an extent that individuals feel depleted and are therefore less likely or able to self-regulate after the experience. In other words, while awe increases time perception, it might also be exhausting.
Pitfalls aside, most of us would be interested in a well-being tonic offering less irritability, greater sense of time and increased (temporal) generosity. Short of scaling the nearest cliff, what can one do to cultivate awe in daily life? The researchers found that awe could be induced by reliving a memory, reading a story, or even watching a certain kind of commercial. Doubtless, artists and clergy would rather you pick up their latest work or get yourself to a pew – but if you’re too pressed for time, the latest commercial might have to do.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.