Time flies

I like to say “time flies, whether you’re having fun or not”. That’s always been my excuse for doing fun things (golfing, reading, watching UK basketball, cooking, wine tasting, visiting with friends/family) rather than working at things I consider a duty, things  I “should be doing” (earning a living, maintaining the property, exercising). That’s never been more true than now.

I now have the opportunity to do what I want, for the most part when I want. That’s retirement, and it’s a great thing. I don’t yet have the optimum balance of fun and duty, but I’m getting there.

One thing that’s also true about time flying is that time seems to go faster and faster as we get older. It’s a near-universal feeling. I’ve always wondered why, and it turns out the answer can be found in neuroscience. From a 2016 Scientific American article by James M. Broadway:

“There are good reasons why older people may feel that way. When it comes to how we perceive time, humans can estimate the length of an event from two very different perspectives: a prospective vantage, while an event is still occurring, or a retrospective one, after it has ended. In addition, our experience of time varies with whatever we are doing and how we feel about it. In fact, time does fly when we are having fun. Engaging in a novel exploit makes time appear to pass more quickly in the moment. But if we remember that activity later on, it will seem to have lasted longer than more mundane experiences.

The reason? Our brain encodes new experiences, but not familiar ones, into memory, and our retrospective judgment of time is based on how many new memories we create over a certain period. In other words, the more new memories we build on a weekend getaway, the longer that trip will seem in hindsight.

This phenomenon, which Hammond has dubbed the holiday paradox, seems to present one of the best clues as to why, in retrospect, time seems to pass more quickly the older we get. From childhood to early adulthood, we have many fresh experiences and learn countless new skills. As adults, though, our lives become more routine, and we experience fewer unfamiliar moments. As a result, our early years tend to be relatively overrepresented in our autobiographical memory and, on reflection, seem to have lasted longer. Of course, this means we can also slow time down later in life. We can alter our perceptions by keeping our brain active, continually learning skills and ideas, and exploring new places.”

I love this explanation. It makes perfect sense, and it gives one hope. Even in our doddering old age we can slow the arrow of time by experiencing brand new things. That’s a great principle to live by in retirement –  try or do something new, often. Break out of old habits.

I’ll start that just as soon as I finish my morning coffee, sitting in the same chair in the same room at the same time…


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