When we pass fifty, we seem to think about the passing of time more than ever before and it feels as though it is speeding by. As children, we may learn the concept of time but it stretches out ahead of us and we are not so aware of the tick, tick, tick as it passes by. As we grow older, it seems to taunt us with its speed. The fact that we may have decades left to live does not seem to alter this perception – if anything, it just gives it greater value.
The way we feel time speeds up as we get older seems to be a universal phenomenon. In the fifth and sixth decades of our lives, the shrinking length of each year can be quite disconcerting. Christmas has hardly been celebrated when we find ourselves half way through the next year. Here are a few theories about why this happens:
The pace of life is faster
Perhaps the reason it all seems to go faster is because the pace of life is always accelerating. Many scientific advances have been made over the last century and technology is changing so fast that we are communicating in ways that we couldn’t have dreamed possible a century ago. This means there is an increasing disconnect between older people and the current world they live in. Many of them talk about that disconnect – the world they grew up in is far removed from the one they have to navigate now.
We pay time more attention
When we reach middle age, we often feel that we are at a crossroads in our life. We are heading into the second half of our lives. Is it the realization that we are heading towards death the fact that makes time more valuable to us? And is it our response to this realization that makes us watch each precious year slip by with greater attention? We want to hold on to it for as long as possible but it seems to slip through our hands like sand through an hourglass.
Our memory plays tricks on us
Could it be that we have a better recall of things that have just happened, and a clearer sense of the order in which they happened and how they relate to more recent events? When we think about the past year, the events slot neatly into line but as we think further back, we find it harder to place exactly when they occurred. We may use the births of our children to calculate when other minor events took place. Does the brain interpret the fact that the past is more disordered as a sign that it stretched over a longer period? We may be manipulating our memories and they may be manipulating us.
We have fewer memorable events
Psychologist William James proposed that as we age, time seems to speed by because we have fewer and fewer memorable events. There’s no more first kiss, first day at school, first day at a new job. When we are young, so many of our experiences are novel. All these new experiences seem to stretch time. When we are older, the fact that our lives are more routine may make our brain believe that less has happened and time is condensed.
What appears to contradict this is that we all know how slowly time passes when we are bored and how time flies when we’re having fun. But our sense of how time passes while we are doing something does not always agree with how much time, in retrospect, we felt we spent doing it.
Our body clocks slow down
The body’s metabolic rate decreases in middle age, so a slowing of the brain’s activity may make the outside world seem to pass more rapidly in comparison. There is good evidence that our brain contains clocks. Our activity and sleep patterns follow a daily cycle. This is why people can train themselves to wake up just a few seconds before their alarm rings in the morning. But there does not appear to be a single area in the brain dedicated to perception of time and the way we assess the passing of small increments of time. What does seem to be the case is that our estimation of the passing of minutes and hours becomes less accurate as we grow older.
A proportional theory
We perceive a period of time as the proportion of time we have already lived through. In other words, a year seems much longer at the beginning of our lives than it does at the end. This theory was first proposed by Paul Janet, a French philosopher. To a two-year old, a year is half of their life and that is why the wait from one birthday to another seems like a lifetime. As we grow older, one year is a smaller and smaller fraction of our total lives so it’s no wonder it seems to go by so quickly. This theory would explain why our small kids keep asking “Are we there yet?” when on a long car journey. That journey feels way longer to them than it does to us.
These are all just theories and there’s likely to be a little truth in all of them. But perception of time is a complex issue and we can’t really explain why the years seem to pass more quickly as we age. If it’s the spur that drives us to live life fully while we can because its going by so quickly, then it’s a good thing. I think time appears to speed up to give our choices an urgency – to make us consciously stand back and consider our future. But not to stand back and consider for too long, of course, because we have plenty of productive years ahead.