The Grand Canyon. A mountain peak. An incredible sunset layered with pink, violet, red and orange. Whale watching. The pyramids. They all inspire awe. That could help our mental health.
A recent study has found that being in awe of something, or experiencing a moment of awe, does more than just inspire people.
It can possibly expand a person's sense of time, decrease their impatience and make them more satisfied with their own lives for the time being.
The study was authored by Melanie Rudd and Jennifer Aaker, both of Stanford University Graduate School of Business, and Kathleen Vohs from the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management.
These researchers conducted three experiments to learn the effects that a sense of awe can have on a person's decision-making and feeling of well-being. They defined awe as containing two key elements: a sense of vastness for something immensely larger (physically or symbolically) than themselves and a sense that a person's understanding of the world is altered slightly.
The first dealt with how people perceived time when they felt awe or happiness. The second tested whether a person's attitude toward time and willingness to volunteer their time changed after experiencing awe instead of happiness.
The last experiment looked at whether a person's desire for experiences versus material goods and temporary sense of satisfaction with life changed after experiencing awe.
In the first experiment, 63 students (who were paid $20 to participate in the study) were first given a word game task that involved phrases related to constricted time and which had previously been shown to make participants feel like time was short.
Then the participants watched a 60-second commercial for an LCD television: half watched a version involving awe-inspiring images, such as waterfalls, outer space and sea creatures. The other half watched a version with happy people, a parade, confetti and other happiness-related (but not awe-inspiring) sights.
All the participants then answered a survey regarding emotions, time and random questions. As expected, those watching the first version felt more awe following the experience, and those watching the second felt more happiness.
In addition, however, those who watched the awe-inspiring commercial perceived time as more plentiful and available and felt less pressured for time than those who watched the happy commercial.
The second experiment involved 86 paid participants who were first asked to write about a past experience: half about an experience of awe and half about one with happiness. They then answered survey questions about their feelings and willingness to donate time or money.
The researchers found that those who wrote about awe (who also ended up feeling more awe) also felt less impatience than the happiness group, and further calculations confirmed that it was not the experiences the participants wrote about - but rather the awe they felt - that influenced this feeling.
Further, those who felt awe were more willing to donate their time than those who felt happiness, but neither group was more or less willing to donate money.
Their final experiment involved 105 participants who read one of two stories and answered a survey.
The results revealed that those who read a story involving an awe-inspiring experience, compared to those reading about a more mundane (but similar) experience, felt like they had more time, were more likely to desire an experience over material items and felt more satisfied with their life at that moment.
The authors concluded that feeling a sense of awe can have an impact on how a person perceives time and their own lives, at least temporarily.
"In summary, awe offset the feeling that time is limited, which increased willingness to volunteer time, accentuated preferences for experiential goods and lifted satisfaction with life," the authors wrote. "Our studies also demonstrated that awe can be elicited by a walk down memory lane, brief story or even a 60-second commercial. Therefore, awe-eliciting experiences might offer one effective solution to the feelings of time starvation that plague so many people in modern life."
The researchers did caution, however, that feeling awe can potentially be a double-edged sword depending on the circumstances.
"That awe influences time perception suggests it could also amplify the savoring of pleasurable moments or reduce aggressive and distracted driving," they wrote, based on cited previous research. "Furthermore, awe’s complexity suggests it might have multifaceted effects that are not wholly positive. For instance, being stuck in the present moment can cause people to fail at self-regulation, which hints at a potential downside of awe."
The bottom line, however, is that a person feeling especially impatient or pressed for time might consider taking a moment to look at photos of the Grand Canyon or to recall a memory in which they were in awe of something more magnificent and expansive than their day-to-day life. It could reduce their stress and improve their short-term happiness.
The study will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science. The research was funded through Stanford University, and the authors declared no conflicts of interest.