When you go off to college, everyone your parents’ age reminds you to cherish the time there, take advantage of every opportunity because it’s going to be the best time of your life and then after that life blows by. This terrified me. It still does. The risk that at some point time will start speeding up and then suddenly, without realizing, I’ll be old, with my best days behind me.
I’ve thought about this a lot, why does it happen and how could I stop it. Most of the people telling me this at the time were baby boomers. Most of them had started a career shortly after college. Then they worked the same job, in the same city, more or less for the next 30 years. This must be what caused the acceleration. Without unique new experiences, daily life becomes one long run-on sentence. My theory is that having new experiences out of your comfort zone, a complete change in your day to day, adds punctuation to existence and creates structure in the passage of time. Those changes add a rhythm and a topography to our memory that when we reflect, appear longer, more meaningful and fulfilling than a smooth progression of nearly identical days.
So I found this post, from the always excellent Brain Pickings, fascinating. The piece is mostly a review of a book called Time Warped, that focuses on our perception of time. The book describes the “reminiscence bump” which explains why most people perceive that time passed comparatively more slowly when they were young. When we have unique and new experiences we remember those experiences more vividly and perceive time in higher fidelity. A similar effect is called the Holiday Paradox.
But one of the most enchanting instances of time-warping is what Hammond calls the Holiday Paradox — “the contradictory feeling that a good holiday whizzes by, yet feels long when you look back.”
This seems like a pretty plausible explanation. New, unique, and novel experiences make us perceive the passage of time more slowly. When we’re young and first venture into the world we have a lot of these. The same effect happens on vacations abroad.
Like the “reminiscence bump,” the Holiday Paradox has to do with the quality and concentration of new experiences, especially in contrast to familiar daily routines. During ordinary life, time appears to pass at a normal pace, and we use markers like the start of the workday, weekends, and bedtime to assess the rhythm of things. But once we go on vacation, the stimulation of new sights, sounds, and experiences injects a disproportionate amount of novelty that causes these two types of time to misalign. The result is a warped perception of time.”
How do we use this?
This seems like a credible explanation for two ways that time appears to slow down and why it can speed up as we age. It also seems to give us a lever with which to slow down our own experience of the speed of time passing.
Like most humans, I am pretty terrified by my mortality. But there is a soothing image of an old man who has lived a ridiculously full life. He’s done so much in life that he finally gains a level of contentment with his own mortality and looks forward to the rest. Basically this awesome turtle:
Take a few minutes and watch one of the best movie scenes ever.
There is a popular critique of the quest for immortality. That it seems good in theory, but eventually we would tire of the daily struggles of life.
Maybe that’s true. Maybe living forever wouldn’t be that great. But striving to live a very long time, to the point where you actually feel like you’ve had enough time on Earth seems like a worthy goal.
The obvious strategy for living forever is to look at life extension.
But Time Warped seems to give us an interesting theory that all time is not created equal. The two weeks on vacation might feel 5x or 10x longer than the other weeks of the year. So let’s make this very numerical for a minute. Living life on a typical 9-to-5 schedule with 2 weeks vacation per year you have 50 weeks of normal time passing. Rour 2 weeks vacation (assuming you actually do something interesting with them) feel more like 20 weeks of normalized memory time. So in a typical year, you have about 70 units of time. What happens if you then take a sabbatical and take 12 weeks off to travel. Now you have 40 normal weeks and 120 vacation weeks. That year is now 160 units of time and will feel more than twice as long as a normal year. Let’s go crazy and say you spend fully 50 weeks of the year traveling and creating unique experiences. That year of 502 weeks might feel seven times longer than a normal year.
Living a life so punctuated with new experiences that it feels like ten lifetimes is not exactly living forever, but 10x life extension is basically forever when compared to what you can achieve with healthy and longevity-based strategies. There are a lot of good critiques of incessant travel, but it does seem like it’s always the incredibly well-traveled old people that feel content with their interesting lives and most like that awesome turtle. Maybe there’s a secret there.