MPI Philosophy | Nature

Slowing Down Time

In the industrial age many of us had jobs that involved completing a specified number of tasks per day. This concept is essentially nonexistent for knowledge-based workers in the knowledge age. In the knowledge age, we have an objective or a goal that must be achieved for our employer (or other project) and there are often an infinite number of ways to achieve the objective. Therefore, there is a potentially infinite amount of work that can go into researching, developing and executing each objective. This means that we have to make decisions about how we will use our time. Beyond work, we obviously also need to make time for basic needs like sleep, food and exercise along with numerous other activities like relaxation, spending time with friends and anything else that is important to us. This means that we exist in a permanent state of overflow. There is no such thing as “catching up” or “getting everything done”. It is not physically possible to get everything done anymore. It is only possible to prioritize a tiny percentage of the things that you want to get done and focus on getting them done.

Although time may be limited it doesn’t necessarily have to feel that way. New research suggests that our state of mind can change the way we perceive and experience time and make us happier.

We have all had the feeling, at certain times in our lives, that time seemed to stand still. It may have been the first time you saw a natural wonder or, perhaps, a moment when you discovered that you were falling in love. These experiences often involves an element of awe, an emotion triggered by perceptions of vastness (either in size or significance). In these situations, this new perception alters the way we see the world and our own reality. 

Researchers Melanie Rudd, Kathleen Vohs, and Jennifer Aaker examined whether the emotion of awe, compared to happiness and neutral states, might reduce people’s sense of time pressure and consequently result in a greater willingness to volunteer their time, choose experiences over material things and enjoy greater satisfaction with life.

The researchers conducted three experiments. In the first experiment, participants were told to unscramble sentences like “not available enough time much” so that everyone would commence at the same time-pressured baseline. Then the participants were randomly assigned to watch either an awe-eliciting or happiness-eliciting commercial. The awe-eliciting commercial showed people encountering images such waterfalls and whales on a city street, whereas the happiness-eliciting commercial showed a parade with rainbow confetti and celebration. Then the participants completed a survey that included an embedded measure of time perception with items such as “Time is boundless” and “I have lots of time in which I can get things done. As predicted, participants who were in a state of awe, compared to those induced to feel happiness, felt that time was more expansive.

What is the significance of an expansive sense of time? The researchers examined this question in the next two experiments. In the second experiment, participants wrote about a personal experience of awe (in the awe condition) or happiness (in the happiness condition). A measure of impatience was used to assess time perception, followed by a measure of willingness to donate time or money. The results indicated that the awe-induced participants felt less impatient and were also more willing to to donate their time to help others, but not more likely to donate money (which is less relevant to time). A statistical test of mediation showed that participants who were in a state of awe were more willing to give their time because they felt like they had more of it.

In the third experiment, participants read either an awe-inspiring or neutral story then completed questionnaires designed to assess time perception, life satisfaction, and hypothetical choices regarding purchasing experiences or purchasing material goods. again, awe led to expanded time perceptions that, in turn, resulted in increased perceived life satisfaction and interest in experiences rather than material goods.

These results suggest that one way to slow down time is to do things that inspire awe. Routine is your enemy. It sucks time out of your life. How do you feel when somebody wastes a big portion of your time? You need to treat routine the same way. 

Next article in this series: “Our Mind’s Time

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