Why Does Life Speed Up as You Get Older?

Here's how to fight the feeling that the days, weeks and months are rushing by.

Posted Dec 29, 2020

Wikimedia Commons / CC0
Source: Wikimedia Commons / CC0

It’s become a truism to the point of cliche that in the year 2020, the passage of time is not what it used to be. People joke about not being able to remember what day it is; we look back over the past nine months goggle-eyed, shocked that so much time has passed. This effect—of time passing at subjectively different rates—has been identified experimentally, too: research tells us that time appears to pass more slowly when one feels rejected, becomes ill with a fever, or falls into a depression (Wyllie, 2005). But other factors can cause long-term effects, as well. Many people have probably noticed this same effect in their normal lives, as they get older.  And it’s true: Age does seem to have a significant effect on the subjective perception of time.

Anecdotally, this turns out to be a very recognizable phenomenon: The BBC reported that younger people are better than older people at guessing how long it takes for a minute to pass, without counting the seconds. The effect has been chronicled experimentally, as it was in 2005 by Marc Wittmann and Sandra Lenhoff. Almost 500 subjects, of various ages, were surveyed about the speed with which they felt time passing. Over short time periods, such as a week, the participants did not seem to experience time differently.  However, over long periods of time (like years), the older subjects reported that time felt as though it was passing more rapidly.

To account for this effect, several hypotheses have been advanced. First, as Hammond explained, time is gauged in two different ways. People can assess the passage of time right now, prospectively, in ways that may be distinct from their retrospective perception of how quickly last week or last month went by. By that rationale, there will always be a difference between the current experience of a day and the recollection of days gone by in the past. But there’s also the possibility that children and adults are using different methods to remember the events of their lives. When we’re young, our circumstances may seem more unique or special, and children may therefore tend to remember their experiences in more specific ways (such as “the time at the lake when we ran off the edge of the dock, still wearing our clothes”). Adults, however, are more likely to group their experiences into larger, less specific memories (like “our week at the lake last summer”).

In a similar way, the experiences themselves may also affect the way time goes by. In Scientific American, James Broadway and Brittiney Sandoval explained that new experiences are more likely to be encoded into one's long-term autobiographical memory than familiar or ordinary events. This affects not only the way these experiences are encoded, but also how many of them make it into long-term memory. According to the authors, our subjective experience of the passage of time is related to the sum total of new experiences that we have to remember.  In other words, the more memories you generate from a particular stretch of time, the longer that time will seem, in retrospect, to have lasted. Packing a dozen unique, special memories into a week at the lake, for instance, will take up a lot more mental real estate than the vague recollection of some long lazy days. 

It makes intuitive sense.  While we are growing up, almost everything we experience is new.  In school, we get new teachers and new classrooms every year. In those classrooms, we are expected to learn something new every day. New responsibilities, new toys, and new privileges may often be given to us at home. Cognitively, we are primed and designed to absorb all of this information: Our brains are growing, fusing new neuronal connections, and drinking in the stimuli to which we are exposed. Childhood may only last a short time, but with all of this new information to process, it will be perceived in retrospect as having lasted much longer.

Adulthood, by contrast, is characterized by routine.  Day in, day out—year in, year out—we often go through our lives like a song on repeat. Fresh experiences are comparatively rarer; it can be a lot harder to learn new things or to create unique new memories. One can easily look back on last week, last month, or last year and find nothing substantially different from the events of today. And the more ordinary weeks one lives through without generating special memories—the more “weeks at the lake” without “the time we ran off the end of the dock, still wearing our clothes”—the faster this time will seem to go by.

But this, in turn, gives us a way to game the system—to push back on the feeling that your life is slipping by too quickly. Take a good look at how you spend your spare time: Are you whiling away too many passive hours in front of the television? (Honestly speaking, during COVID-19, who isn’t?) Are your days more full of routine than novelty? If so, and if you also have that nagging feeling that the weeks and months are racing by, maybe it’s time to try something new. 

Keeping your brain active and engaged, as you do when you learn something new or break out of a rigid daily schedule, may help. Stay curious. Set goals and work on them, steadily, until they’ve been realized; the more you learn and change, and the more new accomplishments you achieve, the longer your life may seem to last. I know this is a challenge, but try to fit new events or opportunities into your ordinary weeks. Seek out new things. Instead of letting yourself be passively entertained too much of the time, find ways to be mindful, active, and goal-oriented. This way, when you look back on the weeks and months you've been through, you’ll have many more unique memories to savor, and your time may no longer seem to rush by so quickly.

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References

Broadway, James M & Sandoval, B.  (2016, July 1).  Why Does Time Seem to Speed Up with Age?  Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-does-time-seem-to-speed-up-with-age/

Haden, J.  (2017, October 16).  Science Says Time Really Does Seem to Fly as We Get Older. This Is the Best Way to Slow It Back Down.  Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/jeff-haden/science-says-time-really-does-seem-to-fly-as-we-get-older-this-is-best-way-to-slow-it-back-down.html

Hammond, C.  (2012, July 9).  Does life speed up as you get older?  Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20120709-does-life-speed-up-as-you-age

Stillman, Jessica.  (2017, December 29).  New Study: Here's Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older (and How to Slow It Back Down).  Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/new-study-heres-why-life-speeds-up-as-you-get-older-and-how-to-slow-it-back-down.html

Taylor, S. (2011, July 7).  Why Time Seems to Pass at Different Speeds (Part 2).  Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/out-the-darkness/201107/why-time-seems-pass-different-speeds-part-2-1

Wittmann, M. & Lehnhoff, S.  (2005).  Age effects in perception of time.  Psychological Reports, 97(3), pp. 921-35.

Wyllie, M.  (2005).  Lived time and psychopathology. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 12 (3), pp. 173-185