For most people, each passing month of their lives seems to feel shorter than the previous. Many of us can’t believe that stores are already starting to display Christmas products, and if you’re writing a check, you might still catch yourself writing 2013 when 2014 is nearly over.
All clocks follow the same 12 hour / 60 minute symmetry, yet studies suggest that as we get older, we don’t experience time the same way. And there are many theories that explain why it feels like time speeds up as we grow older.
Many psychologists believe that as we age, our perception of time begins to accelerate versus time actually speeding up. Studies indicate that biological changes in the human body that happen as it ages, such as reduced dopamine production in the brain, impact our internal clock. Furthermore, some believe that as we grow up, we have fewer emotional and arousing experiences – the first kiss, the first trip away from home, the first heartbreak. Such experiences are easier to remember and lead to higher time estimations.
The emotional intensity of our daily life is affected by the fact that many of us experience “Habituation Hypothesis”. Consider how often you find yourself on autopilot, moving through your daily tasks such as getting dressed or cooking dinner, or sitting in your daily commute while your mind is elsewhere. If you’ve lived in one place for a long time, or held the same job for many years, less and less feels truly new.
Our instinct is to conserve energy when we can, so when life is predictable, our minds turn to autopilot and we tune out. Our minds become efficient at carrying out tasks that have become habitual, so they are freed up to address more pressing issues. Unfortunately, many of us spend this mental energy on worrying, self-analyzing, weighing decisions, etc., which can become quite stressful. Yet, regardless where our mental focus goes, by exhibiting this type of behavior, we have a tendency to compress time, and as a result our lives seem to speed up.
There’s also what psychologists call “Forward Telescoping”, which considers how we perceive past events that have made a significant impact in our lives. We are inclined to stay connected to important past events – a birth of a child, a friend dying – to where they seem quite recent, even when many years have passed. The realization that ten years have gone by since you got married, when you feel like it’s only been five, can be quite shocking.
The quickening of our perception of time was also explained by Paul Janet’s “Proportional Theory”. It suggests that as we get older, each period of time is a smaller fraction of the whole lifetime, and this affects how we perceive each moment.
“The apparent length of an interval at a given epoch of a man’s life is proportional to the total length of the life itself. A child of 10 feels a year as 1/10 of his whole life – a man of 50 as 1/50, the whole life meanwhile apparently preserving a constant length.” ~ William James
How can we slow down time?
Look for the beauty in things. Feelings that we experience when we come across something that inspires or transforms us will expand the perception of time, because these moments are more awe-inspiring.
Enjoy the present moment. Instead of always contemplating, analyzing, making decisions, etc., make an effort to free up some of your thoughts while you’re going about you day to appreciate the minute details of each moment and your surroundings.
Limit multitasking. Many of us have busy lives and feel that multitasking is necessary. Yet consider that multitasking will occupy more of your mental resources as you keep pace with switching between tasks. You end up with have less energy to put towards the creation of new memories. In the long run, you’re likely to be less productive while you feel like there are never enough hours in a day.
Seek out new experiences. This one goes back to the impact that emotional experiences have on our perception of time. New experiences are more challenging on the mind, often engage us emotionally, and require us to focus on the present moment. Consider that it’s ok to switch up your daily routine and stop something you’re good at to begin a new chapter in life.
“Studies show that people who feel “time-rich” tend to be happier and more fulfilled than those of us who constantly feel rushed. They experience fewer headaches and upset stomachs, and regularly get better quality sleep.” ~ Ron Friedman, Ph.D. (Source)