Why Time Sometimes Seems To Stand Still, And Why It's So Good For Us

02/06/2015 09:27 am ET | Updated Feb 10, 2015
Thomas Barwick via Getty Images

In today's increasingly fast-paced world, entire days breeze by without us stopping to really experience them. We allow individual moments to blend into one blurry snapshot, and constantly ask ourselves where time has gone and why we can't have more of it. But every now and then, a beautiful sunset, a mesmerizing song or a moving piece of artwork is able to fully captivate our attention. And for that brief period, time seems to stand still.

This sensation of frozen time often arises as a byproduct of awe, that rare but overwhelming feeling of reverence we experience when witnessing something wondrous. Science has connected the feeling of awe with a healthier immune system, a reduction in stress and a boost in creativity and overall satisfaction. And a new paper by Melanie Rudd, Kathleen Vohls and Jennifer Aaker, a marketing professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, has researched specifically how moments of awe help change the way people experience time for the better.

"Awe influences our perception of time by strengthening our focus on the present moment," Aaker told The Huffington Post. "When we focus on the present, we become more aware of the nuanced changes in our emotions, physical sensations and aspects of the surrounding environment. And when we become more conscious of these changes, our experiences get sliced up into meaningful segments, and this makes our time seem fuller and more expansive and plentiful."

Awe-inspiring scenes themselves do not need to be slow to evoke this sense of time suspension. Raging waterfalls, lightning strikes and upbeat musical compositions can be just as effective as the view of a majestic mountain range or a casual pass through an art museum. Rather, the experience must organically pull a person into the present moment, inspiring an adjustment in their overall view of the world around them.

According to Rudd, there are two things needed for someone to have a true awe experience: perceptual vastness -- you need to perceive that you've encountered something vast in number, size, scope, complexity or social bearing -- and a need for accommodation. You need to feel that you have to revise or update the way you think about or understand the world. While anything you encounter in daily life can evoke a sense of awe by meeting these two requirements, it is often artistic, musical, natural and spiritual elements that elicit such responses.

Awe feels good for a variety of reasons, but what's especially powerful is its ability to help us feel that rushing through the day is unnecessary. According to Aaker, research has shown that people generally have more time than they think they do, so experiences that seem to expand time actually end up making our perceptions more accurate. At the end of the day, it's about striking a better balance, both mentally and physically.

"Right now, the scale is tipped very far toward time scarcity, farther than it should be, and the goal is just to tip the scale in the other direction so that perceptions are more in line with reality," she said. "Generally speaking, people feel time scarce all the time, and that's not heathy, nor is it often accurate. People even feel time poor on vacation, and they just can't relax."

As much as we all would like to benefit from this type of time reality check, it's important to acknowledge that awe is far from a one-size-fits-all emotion; people are moved by different moments and to varying degrees. Aaker says that while many of these wondrous moments occur when one is in a state of solitude, awe can be experienced socially as well. It's just a matter of putting yourself into new situations, and interacting in new ways with the people and places around you each day to identify the moments that truly inspire awe in you.

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