As people age, especially later in life, most report that time seems to pass faster. That is certainly true in my case — Mondays I often find myself surprised that it’s already laundry day again. Friends my age report the same thing; the weeks, months, and years, seem to pass at an ever faster rate.
My theory was it’s mainly due to percentages. At ten years old a year is 10% of a lifetime, but at 60 years old it’s just 1.666%.
Recently, a friend of mine floated an interesting alternate theory.
Her idea is that as kids our minds are largely free from anxiety and worry. As we grow older our minds are increasingly taken up with those worrisome life issues that plague us all — our jobs; our mortgage; our health; the lives of those we care for; and much more.
Our minds are always nibbling at the edges of things large and small. We think constantly about our world and its future.
I think she’s on to something. Compare how slowly time passes when we sit idly and bored waiting for something with how fast it passes when we’re engaged. When we’re idle and bored, minutes tick by slowly. When we’re engaged and having a good time, a day flies by.
There is the expression, “A watched pot never boils.” The idea is that one is just staring thoughtlessly at the pot waiting. On the other hand, if one finds something else to occupy those minutes, they pass more quickly.
Ironically, reflecting back on a busy day makes that day seem long, whereas thinking about a day in which nothing happens makes it seem short.
That makes sense. A busy filled day stores more memories, but a day with little to remember is just empty hours.
This too, I think, accounts for why time passes faster as we age. Much of that anxiety and worry isn’t new. In fact a lot of it is the same loop we find ourselves in day after day. Those worries are constant and usually unchanging. They don’t create a lot of new memories.
When we look back on days, weeks, and years, filled with the same tasks and the same worries, they tend to blend together and not account for much.
When we’re young everything is new and there is so much to learn, especially when we’re very young.
Have you ever noticed how children instantly spot minor changes to the rooms they regularly inhabit? Their young minds are constantly taking in the world, so they examine it in more detail than adults who’ve become used to it.
There are children who live in difficult situations that cause them worry, and it would be interesting to compare their sense of time passing with children in safer situations. Does time pass more quickly for children with anxieties than it does for children without them? Or does the young mind always have so much engagement that time always passes slowly?
There is also my original theory about percentages. A year is always 10% of a lifetime to a ten-year-old, regardless of how much anxiety they may have.
Conversely, regardless of how peaceful and anxiety-free one is at 60, a year is still a much smaller fraction of one’s life.
As it turns out, science offers another answer to the increased pace of time as we age. Our brains slow down, and time literally passes faster for us. (And I do mean literally literally.)
No doubt this is also a factor, but there are 40-year-old baseball players who can still hit a 95 MPH fastball. My guess is that the brain slowing down is more an issue as one gets much older. Yet people in their 40s do report that time seems to pass faster than it once did.
I think my friend’s theory may account for a bigger share of this than mine. As the charts above show, The biggest change happens pretty early — by age 10 a year is down to 10% (at age 1, of course, it’s 100%).
At age 20, it’s down to 5%, and at age 50 it’s only down to 2%. One actually has to reach age 100 for it to drop to 1%, so this may not account for the lion’s share of our perception of time speeding up.
That said, by age 40 a year is 2.5% of our lifetime, so I think it’s still something of a factor.
Stay timeless, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.