Time speeds up as you get older. Almost everyone I know says this is true. I sure do. And it's damn unfair.
Why should children, who have their whole lives ahead of them, experience time moving more slowly than semi-geezers like me (I'm 59), who don't have anywhere near as long to live?
I frequently feel like screaming, Hey life! Flip things around! Those kids should be the ones who sense time flying by, while older people get to string out the days they have left.
One of my best friends from elementary and high school died recently. He was, obviously, my age. I was sad to learn about his death from cancer. And I was jerked into a realization that what happened to him could happen to me.
Dying anytime. You never know how long you've got. So slowing down time to make my remaining moments seem like they're lasting longer strikes me as an excellent proposition.
So today I ventured onto Google, figuring that it would be easy to take my first step: learning why time speeds up the older we get.
Once I knew that, I'd be closer to understanding how to slow time down. But I was surprised by the dearth of solid information Google's results brought me.
I found quite a few references to the obvious notion that when we're three years old, another year adds a third to our life experience, so it seems like a long time. But by the time we're fifty, a year is just 2% of the life we've already lived, so it isn't noticed to nearly the same degree – flitting by as a mere 1/50th would.
However, even though there likely is some truth to this, there's nothing that can be done about it. I can't change how long I've lived. So I Googled on.
And came to a promising-sounding book title: "Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past."
You'd think that the author would have an answer to the "why." But another review of the book by a physician said:
So why does life appear to speed up as we get older? This is a perception that most of us who are older than 50 regularly experience—particularly at anniversaries of varying sorts such as birthdays, holidays, weddings, and residency graduations. The author acknowledges that this question, which involves two highly complex and ephemeral concepts—memory and time—cannot be answered with certainty.
Oh, great. Even an expert on time can't tell me why my life is speeding by faster and faster. Disappointing, but I didn't give up on Google.
I was rewarded with a blog post by someone who, like me, had made the rounds of Internet theories concerning this question. "The Speed of Time" ended with a suggestion that mindfulness – being here now in the present – is a way to make time slow down.
Makes sense. As did the best writing I found on this subject, Steve Taylor's "The Speed of Life: Why Time Seems to Speed Up and How to Slow it Down."
When you've got time, read it. Taylor is a good writer. I liked his take on the "proportional theory" that I mentioned above (as we grow older, every additional period of time is a smaller proportion of our life).
There is some sense to this theory – it does offer an explanation for why the speed of time seems to increase so gradually and evenly, with almost mathematical consistency. One problem with it, however, is that it tries to explain present time purely in terms of past time. The assumption behind it is that we continually experience our lives as a whole, and perceive each day, week, month or year becoming more insignificant in relation to the whole. But we don't live our lives like this. We live in terms of much smaller periods of time, from hour to hour and day to day, dealing with each time period on its own merits, independently of all that has gone before.
Seems true. As does Taylor's preferred explanation for why time speeds up with advancing years:
In my view, the speeding up of time we experience is mainly related to our perception of the world around us and of our experiences, and how this perception changes as we grow older. The speed of time seems to be largely determined by how much information our minds absorb and process – the more information there is, the slower time goes.
He says that things around us come to seem more and more familiar the longer we live. We travel the same streets, go to the same places, talk to the same people, engage in the same activities.
With all this sameness, we begin to ignore perceptions that used to be oh so fascinating. Familiarity breeds disinterest, if not contempt.
One way of increasing the flow of information into our psyches is to do new things. Travel to a different location; take up a fresh hobby; shake up old habits. Good ideas, but the way I see it, this runs the risk of making us a slave to time.
We end up dashing from newness to newness, addicted to the rush of unfamiliar perceptions. Look, the Louvre! I know how to waltz! Golf is fun!
I prefer Taylor's mindfulness approach:
A second way in which we can slow down time is by making a conscious effort to be 'mindful' of our experience… Poets and artists often have this kind of 'child-like' vision – in fact it's this that usually provides the inspiration for their work. They often have a sense of strangeness and wonder about things which most of us take for granted, and feel a need to capture and frame their more intense perceptions.
Read the end of his piece for more on mindfulness. Good stuff. As more perceptions, more information from the outside world, courses into consciousness, time slows down.
I hear the crisp clicking of my ThinkPad's keys. I feel my hands resting on the palm rest. The sound of the heat pump going on outside our kitchen window enters my awareness as I watch these letters appear on my laptop's screen.
Life is always happening all around us, and within us. To pay close attention to it, here and now, that's key to slowing time down.
Mindfulness means stopping thinking and starting to be aware, to live in the here and now of your experience instead of the 'there and then' of your thoughts. It stretches time in exactly the same way that new experience does: because we give more attention to our experience, we take in more information from it.
In other words, to some extent we can control time. It doesn't have to speed up as [we] get older. Some of us try to extend our lives by keeping fit and eating healthy food, which is completely sensible. But it's also possible for us to expand time from the inside, by changing the way we experience the moment to moment reality of our lives. We can live for longer not just in terms of years, but also in terms of perception.