Having an Answer to “Where Did the Time Go?”

Be present and work on making memories.

Posted Jan 15, 2018

Have you ever had the experience when you wondered, “Where did the time go?” It often happens when there is some external factor that makes us realize time has passed. The external factor is usually something that is linked to time (seasons, holidays, birthdates, anniversaries) or physical changes (wrinkles, growth spurts). The perceived passage of time may be short periods (such as minutes, hours or days) or longer intervals (like weeks, months, or years). People of all ages who are able to tell time usually have this sensation and wonder. For example, the child who can’t believe summer vacation from school is already over or a couple on a successful blind date who feel that their evening together flew by. 

Yet, time does not always fly by; it can also seem to last forever. How about the blind date that doesn’t go so well, or a child’s summer vacation when all his friends were away and he had nothing to do? Many people overestimate the passage of time in situations such as

  • Listening to uninteresting speakers
  • Working at a job where there is too much free time or little challenge
  • Highly stressful situations; e.g., being late for an important appointment and being stuck in traffic

Clearly, the impression of time duration is subjective and often linked to the individual’s expectation. This refers to a person’s anticipation of how long the event or occurrence will last; i.e., if it lasts longer or shorter than expected. There are additional factors that can affect someone’s subjective appraisal of the passage of time. These include psychological states such as depression, boredom, excitement, and stress.  

Many studies have explored the effect of age on the perception of time passage and have found that as people grow older, they believe that time is passing faster than when they were younger. This view may stem from the individual’s perception of their “future time.” That is, as people age they become more aware of their “limited years” to live. When thinking about age, young people tend to think in terms of how old they are, and often may see their future as unrestricted. On the other hand, older-aged people tend to think in terms of how many years they have left; their future is not as open-ended as it once was. This cognitive appraisal of one’s age has a significant influence on how people conceptualize their time. 

Two gerontologists, John and Lang (2015), explored the relationship between age and one’s perception of the passage of time. They found that older adults were more likely than younger adults to perceive time passing quickly when engaged in productive activities (such as work or other everyday activities) that “pay off in the future” (p. 1836). These productive activities are not immediately rewarding (like eating and drinking) and take time to complete. The authors found that because older aged adults perceive their future time as limited, this constraint on their “long-term” time availability impacts their subjective perception of time passage.

The perception of time as speeding by or dragging on tends not to yield a positive effect. Both perceptions can cause dissatisfaction, regret, and discomfort. One of the most important aspects of peoples’ dissatisfaction with their perception of time passage is that the time was wasted. For example,

  • They have no lasting memories of that time period (time flew by) 
  • Had they been more aware of the passing time, they could have been more productive
  • Or in cases when people perceive time as moving at glacial speed, they didn’t do anything then to avoid or minimize their emotionally upsetting feelings (like boredom, frustration, helplessness)

These are all normal reactions to our passage of time judgments; however, there are some steps we can take to reduce their frequency.

  • Strive to be more “present.” Use all of your senses and cognitive awareness so as to fully experience your days (and nights). Not every day will be memorable, but at least you will be aware of “living” your life.
  • When engaging in events that you believe are memorable in a favorable way, remind yourself (right then and there) that you are making memories to recall at later times. Do what you can to immerse yourself in the “moment”—pay attention to details, take in the smells, note how you are feeling, scan the setting, appreciate how fortunate you are to be having this experience.
  • When experiencing events that you find to be upsetting or draining, switch gears and take control over your emotions and behavior. For example, find the good in a boring lecture, put on your favorite music when stuck in traffic, take deep breaths, remind yourself that “there will be an end to this experience,” or if necessary, leave the situation. 

There is no denying that time moves on and that we all have a finite number of days for which we can make the most of our lives or not. We recommend that you choose positivity. Cultivate mindfulness and strive to live a full and memorable life without regrets. But beware: “time does fly by when you’re having a good time.”

References

John, D., & Lang, F. R. (2015). Subjective acceleration of time experience in everyday life across adulthood. Developmental Psychology, 51, 1824–1839. DOI: 10.1037/dev0000059

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