‘Slip-Sliding Away’

Why does life speed up as we age and how can we slow it down?

Posted Jan 14, 2019

"Just remember. When you're over the hill, you pick up speed." ~ Charles Schulz

Age (50+) presents us with a whole new set of challenges that have nothing to do with how we look or feel. One is the increasingly rapid passage of time. Why does it seem time speeds up with each passing year? Is there anything we can do about it?

Source: pexels

There are only so many things that are under our control and chronological time is not one of them. According to a recent article in qz.com, we operate all our lives with two different clocks that flow at varying rates. One is what we observe on our watches, clocks, and smart phones. The other is our mind’s eye. Quartz writer Evrat Livny explains how the chronological passage of the hours, days, and years on clocks and calendars is a steady, measurable phenomenon. “Yet our perception of time shifts constantly, depending on the activities we’re engaged in, our age, and even how much rest we get,” he says.

I recall how my father, in order for me to appreciate just how far I was from home during my college year abroad, took me to New York Harbor and put me on a ship, replicating his own youthful journey to Europe around the same age. It took more than ten days to get from New York to the port of Piraeus (Athens), Greece. I was 18, about to spend the next year without parental supervision in a foreign country. Ah, the confidence of youth. I had no fear in those days, absolutely sure that what was to happen would all lead to something even better, more fun, and turn me into the person I was meant to be. After having been raised very strictly (I was not even allowed to date in high school), each month of that year I was gone felt like a year all in itself. I experienced so many new challenges—socially, academically, emotionally, and psychologically—that by the end of it, I felt like an entirely different person. And I was. I told my parents I would find work in Greece, stay, and pay my way for another year of school. It wasn’t long before both parents flew to Athens, scooped me up, and sent me home. 

I was to be the most independent of my parents’ three children, changing my major to French and studying in Paris the following summer, then packing up my stuff and moving back to California just two weeks after receiving my midwestern bachelor’s degree. I lived quite humbly for a good, long while, but I loved owning my life. I still remember feeling those early times going slowly, deliberately and with some great purpose I would someday look back on. I was constantly presented with new challenges about myself and the world around me. Now? I feel that the moment I pack away the holiday decorations, it’s nearly time to unpack them again. 

Why such a disparity in my mind where time is concerned? In his latest paper for the European Review by Duke University, researcher Adrian Bejan explains the physics behind changing senses of time and reveals why the years seem to fly by the older we get. He goes into the mechanics of the human mind and how these relate to our understanding of time, providing a physical explanation for our changing mental perception as we age.  According to the article, time as well as experience is represented by perceived changes in mental stimuli. “It’s related to what we see,” he says. “As physical mental-image processing time and the rapidity of images we take in changes, so does our perception of time.” We evidently each have our own “mind time” unrelated to the passing of hours, days, and years we see on clocks and calendars. As we age, the rate at which changes in mental images are perceived decreases because of  transforming physical features such as vision, brain complexity, and later in life, degradation of the pathways that transmit information. And this shift in image processing leads to the sense of time speeding up. 

But wait. We CAN find ways to fight this.  It boils down to providing ourselves with adequate stimulation (releasing dopamine), enough sleep, and clean living. It’s not very different from what leads to athletes’ poor performance when exhausted. Their processing powers get muddled and their sense of timing is off, prohibiting them from seeing or responding rapidly to new situations. In fact, Bejan even used the example of away games in sports (replete with long trips, poor diet, fatigue, and bad sleeping patterns). It’s just that for us, these periods of being “off” can stretch into years—not just one away game.

The rest has to do with what we place in our own paths. Business Insider writer Jeff Haden, in his article You can't stop time — but you can make it seem like it's slowing down, quotes author Harlan Coben in his book Don’t Let Go. "There are various theories about why the years pass more quickly as you get older. The most popular is also the most obvious. As you get older, each year is a smaller percentage of your life. If you are ten years old, a year is ten percent. If you are fifty years old, a year is two percent.” He goes on to talk about a theory, however, that debunks that explanation. “The theory states that time passes faster when we are in a set routine, when we aren't learning anything new, when we stay stuck in a life pattern. The key to making time slow down is to have new experiences. You may joke that the week you went on vacation flew by far too quickly, but if you stop and think about it, that week actually seemed to last much longer than one involving the drudgery of your day job. You are complaining about it going away so fast because you loved it, not because it felt as though time was passing faster.”

Bottom line? If you want to slow down your perception of time, change things up. Make the days last by doing something different. If that means exercise when none existed, do it. Taking a class or a music lesson? Don’t hold back. Who cares about how dumb we look at this age? When we are young we experience so many firsts. Each and every year, there was a first day of school, new friends, perhaps a first love and first break-up. Because firsts are not as common at our age, however, we have to gravitate toward what is DIFFERENT for us. 

Don’t just let life whiz by. Vary your routine as often as you can, even if it feels safe and comforting to do the same thing each day or each week. Learn or try something new. I am doing that right now by having researched and written this article, but there is a lot more I need to change up. Go somewhere new. Push yourself even when your senses tell you not to. Then see how much more you can reflect back on your time with a new appreciation, and how the clock that you go by on your smart phone will make you think you still have a s-load of time to do whatever you’ve always wanted to do.