The frantic pace of modern life is damaging our sense of time, but nature can help us heal – new study

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“How did it get so late so soon?” ― Dr. Seuss

In an increasingly competitive world, time is of the essence. Notions of productivity and timeliness have accelerated contemporary lifestyles to a dizzying, sometimes overwhelming pace, and our dependence on technology is doing little to help. As the clock grows to dominate the tempo of life, time itself seems to be increasingly fleeting. This is particularly true in large cities, where hours, days, and even weeks can sometimes seem to fly by in an instant.

Indeed, an increasing number of people report constantly feeling short of time. Such feelings of “time scarcity” emerge from how time is both used and perceived by people. Long working hours inevitably limit the time that people have available for other activities, but leading fast-paced lifestyles while packed into noisy, dynamic and crowded urban environments is mentally exhausting, and this can also influence how we perceive time.

In a recent publication, I propose that nature experiences offer a potential solution to the increasingly widespread feelings of time scarcity caused by contemporary urban lifestyles. This emerges from the unique nature of human time perception, which is highly subjective, and moulded by the experiences and environments in which we immerse ourselves.

Read more:
Technology is stealing your time in ways you may not realise – here’s what you can do about it

Human sense of time

Human time perception — our sense of time — is made up of three key dimensions. One of these is temporal succession, meaning the way we perceive the order and overlap of different events. For instance, pressing a light switch and the light turning on may seem like simultaneous events, but we have the capacity to perceive the order in which they happen, and this helps us to make sense of the world around us.

Another dimension is temporal duration, or how we perceive and estimate the duration of an event. An afternoon spent in the tax office, for example, can seem to last forever, while the same amount of time spent in the company of friends can seem short and swift. Popular expressions such as “time stood still” or “time flies when you’re having fun” reflect our nuanced perception of temporal duration.

The third dimension is called temporal perspective, and it refers to the way we regard the past, present and future. Humans have a unique capacity to mentally “time travel” and focus on representations of the past, present and future. Most people have a natural tendency towards certain perspectives, either dwelling on the past or focusing on the future, but maintaining a balanced and dynamic time perspective is a sign of psychological wellbeing.

Schematic representation of human sense of time and the factors that shape it.
Ricardo Correia, Author provided (no reuse)

Together, these dimensions help humans make sense of time. However, the way we perceive them can be profoundly influenced by our own characteristics, what goes on around us, and what we do during a given period of time. Our perception of time changes hugely when, for example, work captures our attention, when we are stuck in traffic, or when we find ourselves in the dentist’s chair undergoing a painful procedure.

In contrast, nature experiences can be mentally, physically and emotionally restorative, and this is reflected in our perception of time.

How nature experiences help regulate human time perception

Evidence from psychological experiments suggests that there are at least two ways natural surroundings can have a positive impact on human time perception.

One of these is expanding our perception of temporal duration. For example, one study reports that when people are inquired how long they have been walking in natural or urban settings, they tend to overestimate the time spent strolling in nature, but not in the city. In other words, time feels longer when we are immersed in natural settings in comparison to urban environments.

Two ways through which nature experiences help change our sense of time.
Ricardo Correia, Author provided (no reuse)

The other way nature experiences can influence our time perception is by promoting a shift in perspective. In one experiment, participants spent a short period of silence either indoors or outdoors, and were later asked how this experience influenced their temporal orientation towards the past, present and future. People who experienced the natural setting reported feeling more focused on the present, and less on the past.

Other studies have provided similar evidence suggesting nature experiences can help us shift our perspective on time, and induce a more positive outlook of the present moment.

While there is plenty of evidence that nature experiences have various physical and mental benefits, the idea that such experiences can help people uplift their relationship with time is new, and provides a unique perspective on the importance of nature for human well-being.

Further enhancing our understanding of how nature benefits human sense of time can help us design cities and other urban environments in healthier and more sustainable ways.

Una información de Medioambiente + Energía – The Conversation

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