I can still feel my breath catch when I think to my one morning in Venice, over two years ago, when I watched a master artist at work. Surrounded by a dozen fellow tourists in a small, dark studio on the ground floor of a glass store, I watched as a small blob of molten glass was transformed into a rearing horse, before my eyes, in a minute and a half flat. I took pictures on autopilot, without looking through the viewfinder, trying to capture the wonder I felt at that moment and knowing I couldn’t possibly succeed. The closest I can come to sharing that experience is a sequence of three photos, spaced exactly 37 seconds apart, depicting one of the most awe-inspiring moments of my life.
If you had asked me at the moment I left that studio, “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole, right now?”, there’s no doubt I would have picked the highest number imaginable. But it’s not enough for psychologists to know that awe-inducing moments have such a personal impact; we want to know why, and just how much they can influence our perceptions.
This is the idea behind research conducted by Melanie Rudd and colleagues at Stanford University. They started with the idea that “experiences of awe bring people into the present moment”, and theorized that this being-in-the-moment would give people the sense that they have all the time in the world – and that this sense of time would make them more generous with their time, more satisfied with their lives, and more interested in experiences than stuff.
Trying to induce awe in a laboratory is a challenging endeavor, but the researchers found three ways to do it. The most effective was to have college students watch a brief commercial for an LCD television. Based on the description of a commercial that featured “people in city streets and parks encountering and interacting with vast, mentally overwhelming, and seemingly realistic images, such as waterfalls, whales, and astronauts in space”, I’m fairly confident that awe was induced by this video:
(And if you’re curious, you can also watch the not awe, just happiness commercial).
Students who watched the video reported feel much more awe (a 6, on a scale of 1 to 7) than students who watched a happy but not awe-inspiring commercial (3.8 out of 7, roughly “neither agree nor disagree” about feeling awe). And even though this study was disguised as a marketing survey with questions about TV brand awareness, students who had watched the awe-inspiring video reported feeling they had more time available, suggesting that moment of awe led to expanded perception of time.
This awe-induced sense of “all the time in the world” alters our behavior. In a second experiment, the researchers induced awe by having students write a personal narrative about a time they felt awe (as I did, when starting this entry) or a time they felt happy. This was not quite as successful at inspiring awe, with students reporting awe only at 4.2 out of 7, but it still made them less impatient, and more willing to volunteer time for charity. They weren’t more generous overall – they were just as likely as the only-happy students to volunteer money – and their willingness to volunteer time could be predicted by how impatient they felt: The less impatient they reported feeling, the more willing they were to volunteer time.
A third experiment induced awe in yet another way, reading a story about climbing the Eiffel Tower (similar to your experience reading my story at the start of this entry). This was only a little awe-inspiring, with feelings of awe just 3 out of 7 (still higher than an emotionless control condition), but people who read the story still reported almost a full point higher on life satisfaction, and were more likely to choose an experience reward like a movie theatre gift certificate over a materialistic reward like a gas card. Again, both of these could be predicted by how much time people reported feeling they had.
And so one of the mysteries of awe is a little less mysterious: Feelings of awe make us more generous, more focused on experience, more satisfied with our lives, all because they make us feel we have more time. So if you’re feeling rushed, you can seek out an awe-inspiring experience (nature, music, and art are all thought to be consistent awe inducers). A little awe can go quite a long way.