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Why Does Life Speed Up As You Age?

Sep 19, 2021 | Stories

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“Dad, how much more time to reach the restaurant?”, you ask with restlessness.

“Just 20 minutes” your dad responds sweetly.

You start to get irritated and sink down in your seat. Even though mom says it’s just been 10 minutes since you left home, it feels like an hour.

I can bet all of us have been there when we were 5 or 6 years old…

Waiting for your mom’s call to get over to ask her if you could go and play seemed like half an hour, when in reality you were just waiting for 5 minutes.

But now, 5 minutes spent talking to your friends seem quicker than a minute.

Why do you think that is?

Why does life seem to speed up as you age?

There are multiple theories regarding this.

One of them states that as you get older each year goes faster because it makes up a smaller fraction of your entire life.

For example at 5 years of age, 1 year is 20% of your life. However at age 25, it makes up just 4% of your life. Hence, the same amount of time starts making up a lesser portion of your life.

But I don’t think that this actually happens because a day is of the same duration, whether you’re 7 or 17.

So it doesn’t have as much to do with the actual calculation of time, but rather how we perceive time.

(Good news, even if you didn’t understand this percentage theory, you’re good to go because it doesn’t have a reference ahead in the post. We’ll leave the time theories to the physicists)

The short simple explanation is that how we perceive the passage of time is directly linked to how much attention we are paying to it.

For instance, if you’re bored or afraid, or in any other unpleasant circumstances, you hope for the time to pass, focusing all your attention on the time, thus making it go slower.

As we age, we become more and more engrossed and focused on what we are doing (aka when we’re in the flow or zone). We also become less aware of our surroundings and our perceptions of the environment are lowered as compared to our perception during childhood.

Thus, when we focus on whatever is in front of us, we don’t pay attention to the time, thus making time fly by. Another instance you could take is being absorbed into gaming.

This explanation justifies the fact time literally seems to pass by in a jiffy when you’re on a vacation (or just having fun in general).

You’re concentrating on what’s happening and what you’ll be doing, rather than how much time is left before you need to go back home.

Yet when you look back on the trip, it seems like it lasted a long time because of the memories you made and amazing things you did.

This brings us to the Holiday Paradox.

While we are at the vacation time slips by, but when we reflect on it, it lasts forever.

This is because we view time in two ways:

  • Prospectively
  • Retrospectively

Prospective view of time means how we measure time as it is passing, or simply how we see it in the moment. Prospective view measures time by how much energy we spend. For example, a child has to use most of his energy to learn about new things and gather new experiences. An adult however, does not need to spend as much energy because he knows the routine things and doesn’t have as many novel things to learn. So prospectively, a day goes by much faster for an adult than a kid.

Retrospective view, as the name suggests, means how we perceive time when we look back at it, when we reflect on it. It measures time by how many memories we made. Even a 2 day vacation can seem like a long one if you have a lot of fun and try out new things.

So if your brain can stretch out time in retrospect because you made memories, it can also compress it, if you didn’t do anything interesting or worth remembering.

If days are repetitive, consisting of the same routine, it is gonna speed up time. A routine week – which is ultimately a kind of repetition – passes in a blur since you barely have any new memories.

Thus a week full of events and gatherings seems longer than it actually is.

Adding a few new things to your routine, such as a different routine, can make it seem like you made a new memory.

Now some would wish that time goes slowly, while others would wish for it to pass by quickly. But I think the happiest life would be the one where time seems to fly as you live it, but stays forever in your memories.

Recap for memory:

  1. How we perceive the passage of time is directly linked to how much attention we are paying to it.
  2. Prospectively – Being bored, afraid and focusing on the time can cause it to slow down, and being engrossed in what you’re doing, trying new things and just being in the present can cause it to speed up.
  3. Retrospectively – Making memories and having novel experiences can cause time to stretch, and repetition can cause time periods to become a blur.

Here are two of the videos that inspired me to write this post:

P. S. It was really challenging (and fun at the same time) for me to write this post. It was really hard to explain a topic like this through writing. Hope it made sense 🙂 Let me know if I explained it well and if you have any questions or discussion regarding the topic, I’d like to talk to you.

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Shailendra Vijayvergia

I do not buy percentage theory however prospectively vs retrospectively makes more sense. And it was just coincidence that we (Your Gopal Daadu and I) were discussing while we were waiting to get discharged from hospital where 30 minutes time seemed 2 hours waiting period.

A new slant on time.