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Freeport, ME, March 16, 2021

How Time Outdoors Can Sharpen Your Perception of Time

2020 did many things to our collective experience, and one of the most jarring changes has been the dissolving of boundaries between work and just about everything else. When your office is now in your living room, there’s no escaping the hum of your laptop. Work is, essentially, always on. We used to be able to unhook from our workday—during a commute, heading to soccer practice, grabbing happy hour with friends. But today, you change from your sleep pajamas into your day pajamas and back again. What is time, anyway?

Scientists have long studied how our feelings impact our sense of time, recognizing the important role happiness, sadness, fear, and other emotions play in the way we feel the passing of time. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Time flies when you’re having fun,” or “A watched pot never boils.” In other words, our experience of time is tied to how we’re feeling about what we’re doing (or not doing). And lately, it feels like we’re living our very own Groundhog Day—leading to feelings of boredom, anxiety, and for some, despair. We’re doing less of the things we love, and that impacts the way we experience the passing of time.

You may have heard of a “flow” state, a term coined by American-Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. “Flow” describes the experience of being so immersed in an activity, all the distractions seem to fade away. One of the key features of being in the flow state is a distorted sense of time. You lose track, so to speak.

Another way to lose yourself in the moment is when you’re experiencing feelings of awe—especially feelings of awe associated with nature. Researchers have shown that participants who felt awe, relative to other emotions, felt they had more time available and were less impatient. Not only that, they were more likely to give of their time to help other people. And perhaps most importantly, they experienced greater life satisfaction.

So how does this work? How does our experience of awe outside alter our experience of time? Awe—whether you just caught the last of the sunset or you’re summiting a peak at sunrise, brings people into the present moment. You are here, now. Much like the flow state. And being in the present moment is what underlies awe’s capacity to adjust time perception, influence how we make decisions, and make life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.

In this era of work from everywhere, where time feels like it’s been flattened, it’s essential we find ways to experience the fullness of time—and the easiest way to do that is to just get outside. We’ve written before about awe and how it doesn’t require some grand adventure to tap into. It’s about setting your attention and intention of the restorative power of being outside. And that might be as simple as watching the clouds float across the sky from your back porch.

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