The first highlight on one of the pieces I was reading to research this article reads: “There’s considerable evidence that time doesn’t speed up as we age” and I thought, wow, well, that’s good. Inasmuch as time is a self-imposed, human-designed construct, I still want a second to be a second and a minute to be a minute no matter what my age. The notion that time could expand in our youth and contract as we grow older is a little…alarming.
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So why is it that time seems to accelerate as we get older: that our early years seem to stretch out much longer than our later ones? Certainly, the key is perception: time as we know it doesn’t change; our perception of it, however, does. But what’s the how and why behind this shift in perspective that seems to occur consistently with aging?
A Matter of Perception
As I previously mentioned, it all comes down to perception. Scientists have multiple ways of studying how humans perceive time. Some studies involve time estimation, referencing our abilities to estimate time compared to a clock. Some studies involve our general, broad awareness of time’s passage; these are called time awareness studies. A third method of study involves how humans perceive time, or time perception studies.
Time perception studies demonstrate how our memories form our relationships with the past, present and future. It’s in this realm of study that differences between older and younger participants showed significant change. These studies showed that when reflecting on their own lives, participants were more likely to perceive their younger years as slower and their later ones as speeding up.
It still doesn’t make sense, however, why we would report similar findings upon all age groups for time estimation and awareness, but not for time perception. What is it about the way we create memories that makes time seem to go by more slowly when we are younger, and speed up in our later years.
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Experiences, Distractions and Events: How Time Flies
There are several reasons, psychologists William Friedman and Steve Janssen assert in their paper on the subject, why we perceive that time goes more quickly as we age:
- We remember novel experiences more clearly, and experience fewer of them as we age. When we’re young the whole world is new to us, so we have more unique experiences. Learning to ride a bike or forming new friendships happens as a kid, and those memories are huge in our lives. As adults we settle into routines and the years seem to collapse and fly by, without as many new experiences as benchmarks along the way.
- Adults are a lot busier than children, and busy-ness and distractions increases with adulthood. Adulthood is also filled with more time-consuming tasks, like raising children and developing our careers, which are perceived as taking more time than shorter tasks. Also, adults often feel like we never have enough time to do things, which in turn makes time seem to speed up.
- Memorable events are farther away than they appear: psychologists call this phenomenon forward telescoping and it’s been studied aplenty. Things we remember more clearly seem more recent, and this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy as we remember more recent events more clearly. Conversely, we remember more distant events less clearly, and that makes them seem further away -or longer ago- than we’re able to discern.
Our Memories, Our Enemies?
Our memories, therefore, seem like they are out to trick us. If that’s the case, however, there’s no reason we can’t trick them back. Since routines and habits seem to be the way that time speeds up, undoing those routines and engaging new habits can slow time down again. We’re more likely to remember significant events like learning to skydive than we are routine events like a few hours of TV. So to make the most of your time, change up your routines. Shake up your habits. Commit to learning new things and experiencing life as fully as you did as a child. You’ll be surprised at how quickly time can slow right back down again.