This article contributed to Emotivity by JY Tan. Thanks, JY!
Time Speeds Up as We Age
There is no shortage of anecdotes to illustrate one peculiar experience: time appears to speed up as we get older . As schoolchildren, the twenty exciting minutes of school recess feels rich and sufficient, while one-hour lunch breaks can feel like a miserly allowance for employees in stressful jobs to have their mid-day meals. Our one-week long Chinese New Year holidays can feel incredibly long and exciting as children, but the festive season just seems to blitz by when we are adults. Three months into school and we can easily introduce our classmates to sleepover at our homes and introduce them to our parents as if they were our lifelong friends. But as adults, it can be astounding to be reminded that we have been working with (or even putting up with) some people for years. Why is this?
The Remembering and Experiencing Selves
There exists a curious paradox about the way we perceive the passage of time . You have probably heard of the phrase ‘time flies when you are having fun’ – but why is this? When we are waiting for our flights to depart, the half an hour will feel immensely long, tiresome, and frustrating. When the wait is over, however, and when we are asked by the flight attendant about our day on the flight, we would have replied by saying that our day short. We might even struggle to recall what happened earlier when in fact, even if our day was generally uneventful. In contrast, the same half an hour spent having a conversation with an interesting person feels short-lived, if we even perceive the time slipping by at all. Consequently, our day feels fuller and longer for having chatted with the interesting person. In the latter situation, the event lasted longer in our heads as there are many stimulating moments in the conversation – a contrast to the dour, boring or uneventful experience of waiting in the departure lounge for your flight. Our experience and enjoyment over the course of our 24-hour days seems relative to what we do. Even Einstein alluded to how our experience of time is relative to our experiences, “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute.
The cause of this paradox is not exactly clear, but Daniel Kahneman’s theory of the experiencing self and remembering self can shed some light on experience . The Nobel prize-winning economist theorizes that human beings essentially have two selves that appraise their life experiences – the experiencing self and the remembering self. The experiencing self undergoes the visceral flow of experiences in the moment, while the remembering self recalls and narrates these experiences. This distinction in our selves leads to some discrepancies between our experiences in the moment and autobiographical memories, which holds true for the way we experience time. What this means is that when we discuss the experience of how time passes by for us, it is important to tell apart which experience we are talking about. Is it the self experiencing the moment? Or is it our remembering self, reconstructing our experiences in retrospect?
Time Flies When You’re Having Fun
Back to the point about the slowing flow of time as we age. We can understand time in relation to the novel experiences we have. Childhood and adolescence are marked by high amounts of novel, emotionally-charged experiences: the first time on a plane, first taste of alcohol, first time acing an exam, first sleepover at a friend’s place, perhaps even your first kiss. Novel experiences decrease as we grow up into adulthood. Things that used to be novel become increasingly mundane. A large part of modern adult life typically involves a mundane routine for prolonged periods of time . Ask any adult to describe their day: wake up, prepare for work, work, watch TV/YouTube, sleep, and repeat a similar pattern the following day. As a result, when we think about adult life in retrospect, time really does seem to fly by. There are less emotionally charged and memorable events, which lowers our own subjective duration of a given time span in retrospect. The odd time paradox makes this tougher to grasp. In the moment, especially when anticipating for the end of work hours, time seems to crawl by.
Our subjective experiences of time are not entirely dictated by our developmental stages, however. Some studies show that the amount of memories we have can influence our subjective time duration . When we store more memories in a certain time span, the same time duration feels longer in our minds in retrospect. Emotional events play an important role in shaping this experience: Emotionally charged events are more salient and thus, more easily retrieved as part of our memory. A person in their sixties reflecting on their life would perceive their lives as having been richer and longer – but only if they led an emotionally coloured and varied life.
Savouring Experiences can Help Slow Time
This is an overly simplistic picture of a good life. Does all this mean that we should strive to live lives that are chaotic and at the whims of our hedonistic desires? Hardly. As an extreme example, living life on the lam – a life of crime in which you try to escape police, enemies, and debtors is hardly desirable, even if it does make your life more colourful. The same goes for a life riddled with various addictive substances or sexual partners; our senses get numbed by the endless, meaningless pursuit of hedonic pleasures that, in the long-run, give little meaning for our brief existence in this world. The alternative can be enriching and in turn make life feel long-lived in retrospect: savouring the simple orderly pleasures in life, and the appreciating the depth and richness of our relationships.
The main idea here is that our experiences of time is deeply intertwined with our emotional states and how emotionally charged the events we experienced are. If time is slipping between your fingers through the mundane routines of life, perhaps it is time to allow yourself to experience moments that are emotionally intense and varied. That could be the start of your personal journey on figuring out how to make time slow down and feel longer for yourself.