Why The Last Five Years Of Your Life Have Disappeared

Feel like time is flying by and you've got nothing to show for it? There are scientific reasons for that.

If you’re like many people, this week will feel shorter than the last. June will pass more quickly than May. 2014 will end before you’ve fully processed that it even began.

The symmetry of clocks lulls us into believing that time is a fixed commodity, but studies indicate that’s not the way it’s experienced. Time speeds up as we age. And the older you get, the more quickly it appears to vanish.

If that weren’t bad enough, we also retain less as adults. Consider, for instance, your memories of high school. How much more vividly do you recall the minutiae of those four years compared to the last four years at your job?

The hormonal burst we undergo as teenagers does more than trigger facial acne and questionable decision-making. It also stimulates the growth of neurons that soak up memories of that first date, kiss, or prom. Combine that with the fact that emotional memories feel more recent than memories of the mundane, and you can see why high school is so easy to remember—or, depending on your experience, so difficult to forget.

The Science of Lost Time

Psychologists haven’t pinned down exactly when our perception of time begins to accelerate, but they do offer a few interesting theories about why it happens.

There are biological accounts, having to do with natural changes in heart rate, metabolism, and body temperature as we age. Neurologically, the mature brain also produces less dopamine, a chemical that plays an important role in controlling our internal clock.

But there’s another viewpoint—one that opens the door to the possibility that our tendency to compress time can also be reversed.

According to this "Habituation Hypothesis," the older we get, the less there is that feels truly new. Our minds have evolved to conserve mental energy, and when life is predictable, we tune it out. We automate major parts of our day—getting dressed, commuting to work, cooking dinner—because it is beneficial to do so. The more efficient we are at carrying out simple tasks, the more mental resources we have available for more pressing issues.

But our mindless efficiency comes with an experiential cost. The less attention we pay each passing moment, the more quickly time fades.

So what can we do to reverse the trend?

Seek out beauty

Studies show that experiencing awe, which is the feeling we get when we encounter something inspiring and transformational, like a stirring piece of artwork or the grandeur of nature, expands perception of time. In a series of experiments, psychologists found that prompting the experience of awe in the lab led participants to estimate that they had more free time available. Consequently, they were also less impatient, more satisfied with their lives, and even more willing to volunteer.

Unless we’re on vacation, few of us actively seek out experiences the promote awe on a regular basis. What this research suggests is that a monthly visit to the museum or the occasional nature hike can alter the way we perceive time while elevating the quality of our daily experiences.

Make fewer decisions

The more decisions you choose to make, the less attentional resources you have for focusing on the present moment. What’s more, continuous decision-making is mentally draining, causes stress levels to spike, and ironically, leads to poorer-quality decisions over the long run.

If you’re prone to overanalyzing every minute decision, consider this: research shows that the more options you weigh, the less satisfied you’ll feel about your eventual choice.

Taking the time to choose what not to decide can be a valuable investment, freeing up cognitive bandwidth and keeping you more in tune with the present. Just ask Barack Obama. He’s limited his suit collection to exactly two options—blue and gray—preserving attentional resources for more important matters.

Stop monitoring your email

By now, you’ve probably heard that multitasking diminishes rather than enhances your performance. Sure, simultaneously working on tasks feels more productive, but the attentional resources chewed up toggling back and forth leads to significantly poorer results.

Multitasking also comes with another cost—one that’s obvious when you consider the relationship between attention and time perception. It hinders the formation of new memories. By feeding our insatiable desire to get more done, we leave fewer resources available for consolidating new memories, prompting us to feel as if our lives are shrinking.

Embrace the new

New adventures are more memorable, especially when they’re emotionally engaging. Making new friends, experimenting with novel hobbies, and taking on challenging projects at work require more from us cognitively and focus our attention on the present.

Going away on vacation can similarly provide a mental marker between life events, breaking up the routine of everyday life. It’s when every Wednesday night consists of going to yoga, ordering sushi, and watching television that the weeks, months, and years begin to blur.

Is Time Affluence the Secret to Happiness?

We all want more time. Time for pursuing new hobbies, for visiting exotic cities, for growing closer to the ones we love. And yet, let’s be honest: expanding our perception of time helps us achieve none of these. So what’s the point? What good does it do us to feel as if time is passing more slowly when what we really need is more actual time?

Here, the research is enlightening. Studies show that people who feel "time-rich" tend to be happier and more fulfilled than those of us who constantly feel rushed. They experience fewer headaches and upset stomachs, and regularly get better quality sleep. And it’s not just people who are time-rich and financially successful. Studies show that time affluence is independent of income. Feeling less pressured promotes a happier existence, regardless of how much you earn.

And this is why there is value to slowing down our perception of time. The more we view time as plentiful, the better we are at savoring life’s essential moments as they unfold.

Ron Friedman, Ph.D. is the founder of ignite80, a consulting firm that helps leaders build thriving organizations, and the author of The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace. Connect with him @ronfriedman.

[Image: Flickr user Giselle Fernandes]

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7 Comments

  • Kristina Simpson

    It's so refreshing... and thank you for the science! Now I really feel like I'm up to something. It's what I have experienced and knew all along for years. Well, maybe being a Europeans counts too–enjoying life comes naturally :)) THAT's why I'm such a passionate advocate of vacation, getaways even if for a day, surrounding myself with beauty, spending time in nature, travel, exploring foreign lands and cultures, art, dance, etc. It's what makes me come alive. I can really say that I have lived a rich life-rich with experiences, awe, fascination & wonder. However, as I try to inspire people to go and experience that, I feel so much resistance–they'd rather work... I remember asking my European friends while soaking up the sun in one of the gorgeous beaches in California: "so how do I bring up the topic of vacation in a way that people get it?" They smiled: "wow, you've got an interesting job (I work with overworked professionals) of having to convince people to take vacation..."

  • Beverly Vidler

    Very interesting. I have also found that through meditation and learning to live in the present moment, time has slowed down for me and I enjoy each moment more. Once you thoroughly tap into now rather than your mind thinking and racing ahead in terms of what to do next or in the future, your whole perspective on life changes and the level of enjoyment increases immensely.

  • Tom McCormick

    Interesting article. Just reading it and considering its logic has already slowed down my day! Thanks. Oh , Its sad but I wish Mr. Obama would spend ALOT more time picking his suits and a lot less time screwing up this country not to mention this world!!!

  • Susan Peirce Thompson

    This article reminds me of my experience raising children. I have three little ones. Folks with grown kids always stop me in the supermarket to say, "Enjoy it--it goes so fast!" I thank them and smile, but inside I'm thinking, "This is NOT going fast." And while the kids are in diapers time does in fact crawl by. But it's because of that novelty effect that's mentioned in the article. Everything is still new when you have a baby. Routines are not set yet. And in the first few years, development proceeds so rapidly that routines evolve before they can become entrenched. It's when kids get into school and the daily flow gets carved into regimens that time tends to tick by again. My twins are going into first grade this fall, and my little one will be three. Before I know it, I'll be the one telling some young mom in the grocery store to savor it--it goes so fast.

  • domsuit

    I even experienced this in two speeds over the past 5 years. Regular work vs. Kife-changing investment as I happened to get and later also inherit some money just around Lehman. Having worked in investments I actively invested in a way that would be perceived as risky. While the credit crisis also influenced work, this was not be nearly as much. So in regular (work) life I had, like many: wow, is that already 4 years ago, it feels like a year ago, time slips by. However, remenbering trades, markets and and decisions, I often thought: that was a long time ago, many things have happened since. Only to be quite surprised that what felt like ages ago, was only 1.5 years or so, when comparing dates. So indeed, it is also due to how many memorable, different, exciting etc. things have happened, and often in your 3rd, 4th job or so, after a couple of years in that, not so much memorable happens. Same can be true for personal lifes of course, though that may vary and be disrupted more over tim

  • Aha, now I get it. I regularly experience awe because of where I live. I am regularly exposed to many talented young and old musicians, young and old artists, and young and old people in theater groups. I am in awe of their mastery. I also live next door to a gym and I find myself in awe of the many people of all ages who keep themselves in such good shape. I sometimes see high school kids or young adults laying basketball and I am in awe of their agility and determination. I read and absorb many new and intriguing ideas. I write regularly, have completed two plays that have gotten thoughtful, positive feedback.

    Now if only I could better automate those tasks like dressing. I am totally aware of each task that other people apparently automate. This awareness i find burdensome and draining. I'd like to get dressed quickly and up and out but it takes me far too long because I want to avoid thinking about the next task in the process, lol. But once I'm up and out I feel great.