We all remember a time in our childhood when summer vacations appeared ridiculously long, when weeks and months never seemed to end, and how they now seem to fly by! Months rush by at a seemingly accelerating pace and you look back and wonder, “Is it New Year already?” As we grow older, every year seems to pass by more quickly than the previous one, so that the time that is left available for us to live our lives appears to diminish with every round.
It is a fact that time seems to speed up as we age. This is true for people from all over the world and is tremendously important because, for many, the speeding up of time points to its ultimate end. Advances in medical sciences have prolonged the average human life expectancy to 71 years. Statistically speaking, and depending on where you live, if you are in your 30s, you will have around another 40 more years to live. This might seem like plenty of time but, at the rate at which time is speeding up, you do not want to be surprised when you reach the end and exclaim: “What?! Already?!” In order for that not to happen, it would be important to understand why time seems to speed as we grow older.
The key to this answer is in the amount of memory markers from a certain time period that is retained in your mind. In his famous 1890 book, The Principles of Psychology, William James argues that ‘the shortening of the years as we grow older is due to the monotony of the memory’s content and the consequent simplification of the backward-glancing view’. He suggested that ‘emptiness, monotony, and familiarity are what make time shrivel up’. When we were younger, everything was new so we paid more attention to the world around us. There were so many experiences to discover, interesting things to observe, and a whole world to explore. This non-stop supply of novelty meant that our young brains were constantly on high alert. Children are known for their innocent sense of wonder and intensity of perception. The amount of novelty continues to increase as the child grows into a teen. Between the ages of 15 and 25, there is more freedom and new experiences to explore. There are more ‘firsts’ and these memories are usually densely packed. There is a first love, first kiss, first alcoholic drink, first sexual relationship, and first time away from home. Psychologists refer to that period as the ‘reminiscent bump’. These novel experiences create so many memory markers that when they are recalled, that period of time will appear to have taken longer than it actually did. Time will seem to have been running slowly. This goes on until the late twenties when people start to settle down. In our thirties, our lifestyle often starts to become more organized and predictable. We may find a steady job, establish a family with the usual home chores and rhythm that repeats itself week after week. The amount of new experiences decreases and things become much more familiar. With fewer unique memories being recorded, the period of time will be experienced as being shorter. As a result, a year of childhood that is full of rich memories will seem longer than a year of adulthood which has fewer interesting memory markers. When you feel that the years are flying by, routine and monotony are the culprits.
Another factor that leads to the speeding up of time as we grow older has to do with time perspectives. Time appears to run slowly when you are anticipating a future event. Children live mostly in the future. Their whole lives are still ahead of them. They are eager to grow up and are constantly anticipating something good to happen, even though they will later long for their childhood. Young girls pretend to put on make-up as if they are grown-up women already. Young students are eager to graduate from high school or college, get their first car, their first job, and become independent. During those years, positive anticipation generally runs high and the awareness of time is great. This heightened attention to the future causes time to slow down. In contrast, as we grow older, we slowly start to live in the past, recalling accomplishments and misfortunes from our younger years. The greater portion of our life now lies behind us and life’s most important milestones, such as school graduation, first job, marriage, and having children, are no longer anticipated events but have now been transformed into past memories. With fewer things to anticipate and a relatively less optimistic future, time speeds up. President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “The only time you really live fully is from thirty to sixty. The young are slaves to dreams; the old servants of regrets. Only the middle-aged have all their five senses in the keeping of their wits.” So what can we do about it?
‘When you feel that the years are flying by, routine and monotony are the culprits’
A man who dies at the age of 40 might have subjectively lived a longer and more fulfilling life than a man who dies at the age of 90, if he has lived a life that is rich with memories of sensational experiences. Worse still for the man of 90 would be reaching a point in his life when, for whatever reason, he simply stops living, in the true sense of the word. “Some people die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75”, said Benjamin Franklin. When we look back at our life from our present moment, we become aware of its span, starting from our earliest childhood consciousness, right through to all of those experiences that make us ‘us’. We perceive the length of our life in terms of the number of memories we have accumulated. But as we grow older, the amount of routine in our daily lives increases, the speed of time accelerates, and the remaining years get shorter and shorter.
To remedy that, the greater the variety of experiences we have and the more vivid the memory of them, the longer our life will seem. A varied, diverse, and fulfilled life is also a long one. An action packed weekend filled with interesting new activities compared to a weekend that you spent sick with flu at home doing nothing, will be perceived longer in duration when you recollect it. You might have been away for only two days, but it feels that you have been gone forever. That adventure weekend will last longer in your mind and become part of your life story whereas the time when you were sick will quickly be forgotten, as if it was never a part of your life. Therefore, the key to slow down time is to avoid routine tasks as much as possible and introduce novelty and diversity in your activities.
‘A varied, diverse, and fulfilled life is also a long one’
As we age, we become accustomed to the familiar environments we live in. So visiting new places can offer ample new experiences and memories for the brain to process. You do not have to travel far to explore novelty. This can be just around the corner, perhaps a new restaurant or coffee shop that you have never tried before. Rather than sticking to the usual familiar places, try something new. New sounds, people, tastes, colors, textures, and smells sends massive information to your brain and provide lasting memories which, when recalled, will cause time to stretch. Essentially, constantly seek out new experiences in order to slow down the speed at which life is running.
Meeting new people also provides the brain with a lot of information to chew on such as their characters, accents, voices, facial expressions, and body language. Having meaningful and interesting social interactions will therefore create rich long-term memories and longer recalled durations. Joining a social club, a book club, or perhaps a hobby group where you can constantly meet new people will help in slowing down time. Spending time with people you love also slows down time. This is even more important, since relationships form the pillar of a purposeful life.
‘The answer to perceived longevity lies in our ability to collect pleasant memories’
Another way to increase the number of memories is to supply your brain with new information so that it is constantly learning new things. This could be a new language, a new course, or a new skill. It is also never too late to start the things we always wanted to do but never found the time to. Learn to play a musical instrument, read a do-it-yourself book, or start a new hobby. Surround yourself with inspiring people. It could be an intellectual friend, a kind-hearted pal, or perhaps your old friend from high school! Indulge in intellectual and cultural events, or maybe write a book! The key is to keep your brain active by regularly supplying it with fresh information! Essentially, become a student again and do not ever stop learning. This will boost the number of memory markers you collect every day and slow down time.
When we have to wait for something to happen, time feels like it runs more slowly. In most cases, this might be annoying, but we can use that to our advantage. For instance, you could build anticipation and excitement when planning a date or organizing a long summer vacation. That anticipation will increase your alertness level and direct your attention to the passing time causing it to slow down, in a pleasant and exciting way.
Research on how people enjoy their vacation have concluded that anticipating and planning a vacation is even more enjoyable than the vacation itself. It is like Winnie-the-Pooh describing his love for honey, “Well, although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were”. But Winnie did not know what that moment was called. It is a moment of eager anticipation that slows time.
In order to feel proud of having lived a ‘long’ and fulfilling life and in order to slow down the speed of time in our life, we should constantly aim to fill our infinitely precious time with vibrant and intriguing experiences to make every second count, at every point in your life, even to the last one. No one said it better than the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas,
‘Do not go gently into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’
For more information about how our brains experience time and how to slow down time, please check ‘The Power of Time Perception: Control the Speed of Time to Make Every Second Count’ which is now available on:
To measure how fast time runs in your mind, check this new Online Speed of Time Test. You will receive a detailed report about how your personality affects your time experience!