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A Trippy (But Scientific!) Way to Have Richer Travel Experiences

By Sarah Amandolare


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In a way, this type of thinking is like time travel.

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Think about your last journey to the airport. Has it blurred into a collage of honking horns, hastily composed farewell texts, and sweat-inducing struggles with your suitcase zipper? Perhaps you can’t even remember it at all. Or perhaps its frenetic tenor blighted your Bahamian retreat, your Puglian pleasure seeking, your Laotian forest hike.

The time we spend getting to and from the airport can color a trip—sometimes for the worse. As much as we prepare for the flight and the trip itself, we still tend to bookend travel with stress—over traffic, or the lamp we left on, or returning to work the next day. In other words, we tend to neglect this valuable in-between time.

But what if the key to a better cab ride to O’Hare or public transit trek home from JFK depended in part on our perception of time? If those minutes felt expanded rather than compressed, peacefully unspooling rather than sprinting by, then that feeling could carry over to the rest of the trip and our memory of it. University of Houston social psychology and marketing researcher Melanie Rudd shares three ways to change the way you experience time—which might just change the way you travel.

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Seek out awe-inspiring experiences
"A lot of people don't even understand the emotion awe," Rudd says. Yet, her research (co-authored by Kathleen Vohs and Jennifer Aaker) shows that this mysterious state can have a powerful effect on our perception of time—namely, it can make us feel like we have more to spare on a regular basis. So, what exactly is awe, and how can we achieve it? According to Rudd, awe has two essential ingredients: an encounter with something that is both immense—whether in size, scope, or complexity—and that we don't fully understand. "It kind of gives your brain a second of pause," Rudd says.

Fortunately, awe doesn't necessarily have to come from, say, a rare solar eclipse. We can set ourselves up for everyday awe-inspiring experiences by seeking out situations likely to possess those two key qualities. Think new situations, people, and places, and alterations to your typical routine. And try to slow down. “You can’t really rush your emotions,” says Rudd. “It does you very little good to walk up to the edge of the Grand Canyon and say, ‘Seen it!’ and turn around and go away.” Another thing to keep in mind: awe feeds on itself. Recognizing that you can indeed alter your perception of time is a good first step, says Rudd. Then, feeling awe can become a practice—even one that reveals its benefits in the back seat of a cab during rush hour.

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Stay Present
Rudd's research sheds different light on the benefits of this ever-popular sentiment. "When you focus on the present, it makes you feel that your time is very full, that a lot of things have happened during a given unit of time," she says. To break it down further, we can think of the present as everything happening in a given moment, including changes in the environment, our emotions, or physical sensations. Soak all of that up, and your experiences can start to feel richer, and your time more expansive. "You feel less panicked, or like time is whooshing by or you're wasting it," says Rudd. "Your brain calms down." And who wouldn’t want to feel calmer on realizing, mid-journey to the airport, that you’ve left your camera behind? Although, that mistake could be for the best: “Sometimes things don't seem quite as awe-inspiring from behind the camera as they do when you put the camera down,” says Rudd.

Give Your Time
If you want to feel like you have more time, then volunteering might seem counterintuitive. But, surprisingly enough, research suggests that giving up hours for other people is another means of expanding your perception of time affluence. "It's a way to trick your brain," Rudd says. "If you volunteer your time, your brain thinks, 'Oh, I'm giving this away—I must have a lot.'" And it goes both ways: when you feel that you have more time, then you’re also likelier to help others.

>>Next: How to Find Your Chill on a Turbulent Flight

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