I think it’s reasonable to assume that every adult alive today has, at some point in their life, expressed or heard from someone else a variation of the following:
Where did all the time go?
I can’t believe it’s the New Year. Time flies!
I remember when you were just this big. Look at you—you’ve grown up so fast.
Enjoy it. One day you’ll wake up and you’ll be 50.
While different on the surface, the sentiment behind these phrases is the same: time feels like it moves faster as we get older.
But why does this happen? Is it just an inevitable part of life and aging, or are there reasons behind it?
Why time feels like it’s moving faster as we get older
1. Proportional Theory
Proportional Theory, first put forward in 1897 by French philosopher Paul Janet, suggests that our perception of time changes as our life span increases.
Look at it like this: when you’re one year old, that year is 100% of your life.
But as you grow older, a single year relative to your whole life becomes a smaller and smaller fraction of the whole.
So when you’re 5 years old, one year is 20% of your life.
At 15 years old, a year is 7%; at 33, 3%; and at 60 years old, just 1.6%.
Considering that most people can’t remember much before age four, lengths of time in our childhood—especially between ages four to nine—feel especially long. (I’m sure we all remember on the last day of school feeling joy and excitement over the seemingly infinite stretch of summer days ahead.)
But as we progress into adulthood, each year becomes a smaller slice of the whole, repetitive annual events like holidays and birthdays become increasingly familiar, and each year feels shorter than the last.
The once eternal summer now passes in an instant.
(To see this effect illustrated on screen, scroll through this visual time-warp of life by Austrian designer Maximilian Kiener.)
2. Perceptual Theory
This one fascinates me. Perceptual Theory, first verified by the psychologist Robert Ornstein in the 1960’s, states that the speed of time and our perception of it is heavily influenced by how much new information is available for our minds to absorb and process.
In essence, the more new information we take in, the slower time feels.
This theory could explain in part why time feels slower for children. Assigned the enormous task of absorbing and processing all this new perceptual and sensory information around them, their brains are continuously alert and attentive.
Because everything is unfamiliar.
Consider (and try to remember!) the mind of a child: having experienced so little, the world is a mysterious and fascinating place. Adults and children may live in the same world, but reality for a child is vastly different—full of wonders and curiosities and miraculous little events that most adults ignore.
Perhaps this is why we take on a wistful expression when reminiscing on the bliss of childhood, that freedom of mind and body before the world becomes drearily familiar and predictable.
But this way of seeing the world isn’t an entirely conscious choice for adults; it’s the brain’s natural way of seeking security and comfort. Instinctually, our brains want to operate at the lowest expenditure of energy, and being fully alert at all times has a high metabolic cost (meaning a lot of energy is required). Just as our bodies tend to lean towards laziness, so do our brains seek to reach a point where they don’t have to work so hard.
So once the patterns of the world are discerned and understood, the need for full attention ends. We’re able to survive and function on less energy. This equates to our minds taking in less information from our surroundings, and time feels like it begins to move faster.
So basically, repetition—doing and seeing the same things over and over—shortens our internal sense of time, whereas chasing new experiences stretches it.
And let’s be honest: adulthood is full of repetition. It in no way mirrors the playground of discovery that is childhood.
But does adulthood have to be this way? I think most of us let it be this way rather than actively choose it.
Routines are typically formed in early adulthood, just around that time when we notice time seems to be speeding up.
We get a job and adapt our lives around its demands. Life becomes more mechanical as we follow the same patterns of our routine and rarely stray. We work the same hours on the same days each week, drive the same way to work, adhere to a weekly gym schedule, eat the same foods, watch the same TV shows, meet friends for drinks on certain nights, maybe take a periodic vacation to “shake things up”. But overall, things are steady, predictable, familiar.
The years blur together. Before we know it, the responsibilities of adulthood have yanked us away from that playground of discovery and confined us to walk round and round our little life circles, like fish plucked from the reef and plopped into tanks.
Childhood is rife with discovery and adventure—it’s the status quo. But these are not inherent parts of life in adulthood. Each day you have the option for adventure or routine comfort, and if you want an adventurous life, you have to choose it.
One last thing: this isn’t meant to be an attack on routine. Routine is extremely useful and beneficial at times—I can’t deny the benefits of having one.
I simply think that losing yourself in a routine for too long is the surest way to let life pass you by.
How to Slow Down Time
If familiarity is the initial cause for time moving quicker, then by deliberately seeking out the unfamiliar, we can effectively “influence” our perception of time.
While I’d argue that travel is one of the best ways to do this, there are numerous others that don’t require taking off to a foreign country. Escaping familiarity can be as simple as pursuing a new hobby, meeting new people, pushing boundaries, and learning new skills.
If you choose to work in the same job all your life, stay in the same area, hang out with the same people, do the same things, then your life is bound to pass by quickly. But if you regularly move around, try different lines of work, expose yourself to new ideas and people, then time may swell in your favor.
The point is to break out of routine.
(Even breaking routine for a day has a powerful effect. On your next day off, do something drastically different from your usual day-to-day. Whether the outcome is good or bad, that day will undoubtedly shine out like a beacon in your mind as you think back over the past week or month. Novelty has a potent impact on memory.)
Imagine immersing yourself in a life so full of the unfamiliar that your brain never has the chance to “catch up” and fully understand what’s going on.
This is travel.
The constant subjection of yourself to an overload of new information everyday. All this absorbing and storing of novel information warps your experience of time to make a week of this type of living feel like several.
No activity (to my knowledge) is more effective at exposing you to the unfamiliar and expanding your sense of time than travel.
If travel isn’t in your immediate future, don’t worry.
You can train your mind to take in more information in familiar surroundings simply by consciously choosing where to direct your attention.
By practicing mindfulness, by honing your attention to let you actually be in the present moment, you’ll invariably take in more information. This higher influx of information expands time in the same way that new experiences and unfamiliarity do.
- Try shifting your attention away from cheap distractions like TV and social media, and direct more attention to simple awareness of your body and surroundings. This may mean learning to be content sometimes without any kind of outside distraction (which can be a lot of things, but the most obvious is your phone).
- Attempt to temporarily free yourself (through meditation) from the incessant thought-circus in your head, always stealing you away from the present moment. (Easier said than done, I know.)
Become a student again
Begin by eradicating the presumptions and perceived knowledge you have about the world. Ditch the idea that you know the underpinnings of everything that’s happening around you so what-is-there-to-see-my-phone-is-more-interesting-anyways.
Don’t do that. Look forward, look up. Stop looking down (unless you’re examining the strange insects of the Earth then by all means forge ahead!).
Don’t always look to be entertained; instead, learn a new skill that requires sustained effort.
Take it upon yourself to continue your own education. Explore deeper into your areas of interest, but also challenge yourself to branch out and learn about fields of study that intimidate you.
The paths for growth and learning are endless. Pick a few and explore all the forks in the road.
The Currency of Life
It seems probable that the apparent speeding up of time is just a cognitive illusion. If time is subjective and prone to distortion, isn’t it worth the effort to try to bend it in your favor?
We’re all given some unknown, finite amount of time in life to spend how we please, and we often complain that we don’t have enough of it. But perhaps instead of wishing for more time, we should learn to squeeze more life out of the time we do have.
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I want to leave off with this video. It explores the highly inspirational story of Jedidiah Jenkins and his grand philosophy of life.
If you’re interested in this notion of “slowing down time”, I recommend watching his fantastic TED Talk as well.
Top Photo credit: Foter.com