Time speeds up as you get older

by Marcus Loane

3rd October 2010

Does time seem to speed up as you get older? Most people agree. This is a well recognised subjective phenomenon. When you were seven years old the summer months seemed to last forever. As an adult they seem to fly by in what seems like a few weeks. The older you get the faster the Christmases and birthdays come round each year and older people find themselves asking, “Where did the years go?”

There are several attempts at explaining this. One is that we may view a time period as a proportion of the time already lived. For example when you are seven years old, one year is a seventh of the sum total of your life span so far so it seems like a lot, but if you are 70 years old then one year is a seventieth of your life so it seems less in comparison to all the memories of those years.

Another theory is that when we are young a lot of our experiences are new to us and our brains are working hard taking in and processing the new information. As we get older, more of what we do and experience is repetitive, automatic and familiar. An older person looking back over the years will not be able to easily distinguish much between their 7000 commutes to work or 35 vacations to the same destination. Even the big events such as anniversaries will start to blur into each other if there are enough of them and they are similar enough. So when older people look back in time there is a compression effect and this might be increased by the events that are forgotten too. You may only remember 30% of what you experienced so it seems like a shorter time when you look back on it.

Is there anything we can do about this, assuming that we want to? One way to make your life seem longer when you look back at it would be to pack more novelty into it. If you worked the same job, lived in the same place, vacationed in the same place and had the same habits for 40 years, and you celebrated anniversaries in exactly the same way every year, then when you look back it will seem shorter because there is less to distinguish one year from another, one week from another or even one day from another. This works on shorter time scales too. If you go to work five days a week, come home, eat your dinner, watch TV for a few hours, go to bed and repeat the whole process then it is hard to distinguish one day from another. Therefore even on shorter time scales it is worth trying new things and finding new experiences.

However the reverse seems to be the case when we get down to a time scale of hours or minutes. If we are bored or doing a tedious task (every minute is the same) then time seems to go more slowly – it seems like a long time as we look back at the last few minutes or hours. If we are busy and interested and absorbed in what we are doing or enjoying ourselves then the minutes fly by.

The good news is that this works in our favour. If you are busy, interested, absorbed and enjoying yourself then time will fly by in the short term, but when you look back on it weeks, months and years later, it will seem longer because you have packed more into it and there will be a longer line of memories for you to access.

Have your cake and eat it by seeking out new experiences.

You can have your cake and eat it. By seeking out novelty, time will fly by in the short term (you are enjoying yourself and feeling alive with the newness) yet the passing of time will seem slower when you look back at it from months and years later because it is rich with different memories.


Marcus Loane

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Having children may affect our relationship with time. Children change a lot from year to year so they may act as a time stamp for our memories of occasions. You can remember that was the year when little Johnny was five for example.