I’ve been wondering why it is that time appears to pass at different speeds in different circumstances, given that we know it travels at a constant rate.
Take a second, for example. Its length is clearly defined: it lasts 1/86400th of a day*.
But that’s clock time. Our personal experience of time is not at all the same thing.
Have you ever had the feeling that time is passing more quickly as you get older? Or that it has slowed to an infuriating standstill whilst you’re waiting for traffic lights to change or a webpage to buffer? What is controlling that perception? And if we understand that, can we learn to stretch time to our advantage?
The way we perceive time is directly related to how much attention we are paying to the present moment.
When we do something new, when we feel we are in danger or in the presence of something that shocks or surprises us, we tend to be busy noticing and absorbing the details of what is going on. In the words of Stefan Klein, author of ‘The Secret Pulse of Time’, “The more sense impressions you assimilate from every moment, the richer and more expansive time will seem in retrospect.”
So the greater our attentiveness, the longer time appears to have lasted.
Conversely, when we’re doing things we’ve done a thousand times before, distracted by thoughts about the conversation we need to have later or what we want to eat for dinner, the time can disappear without us even noticing. Which is perhaps why our lives can feel as though they are speeding up as we get older – we are simply spending more time doing things we have done so many times before, we’ve stopped paying attention to them.
So is there a simple way to stretch time – or at least one’s perception of it?
Well, yes. More or less.
By paying more attention to the here and now.
By acting more mindfully.
There is a growing body of evidence supporting the idea that practising mindfulness can result in physical benefits that could result in a longer life.
But regardless of the number of years it might add, we now know that living mindfully can help us feel as though our lives are longer, simply by helping us to stretch our perception of the time we have had.
So I’m curious… have you had experiences of shrinking or stretching time?
If so, what happened?
*Or the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom (at a temperature of 0 K), with a leap second thrown in periodically to compensate for the slightly variation and slowing of the Earth’s rotation, if you want to get technical about it.