The Mystery of Time

I have been wasting a lot of time lately thinking about the passage of time.  I feel like these wonderful retirement years are going by way too fast and I want to slow them down.  Put the brakes on.  Of course, we all have the same 24 hours in a day, so it is really our perception of time that is the problem.

I doubt there is a person over the age of 60 that hasn’t pondered the fact that we have more years behind us than ahead of us.  After a holiday, or if I miss out on something I wanted to do, I wonder how many more opportunities I will have left to experience it.  How many more summers do I have, how many more sunrises will I witness, or how many more Christmases will I celebrate with my family? 

We recently sealed the family time capsule and I slipped a letter in before I closed it.  It was a letter to my family in case I am not alive when they open it in another 17 years, reminding them of how much I love them and how proud I am of each and every one of them.  Well, I did have to add a little motherly advice for them too in case I am not here to harp share it with them.  It doesn’t help any that, at this point in life, we have all lost friends and acquaintances to an early death.   It is a stark reminder that none of us have any guarantees whether we will be here in 17 years, or next year, or even tomorrow.   

I try to keep this blog fun and positive, so I don’t want to dwell on this alarming awareness of the passage of time.  As I often do when I am struggling with something, I started reading about it.  Why does it feel like time goes faster as we age and how do we slow down that perception of time so that we can squeeze out every single juicy minute of this wonderful life? 

I am retired so where the hell does the time go?

The literature confirms that most of us feel like time goes faster as we age, what is not clear, is why we feel that way and how to slow down that perception.  My grandma was in her 90’s when she would lament how quickly time went by.  In my young naive mind, she was very old and just sat around her apartment watching T.V., with the weekly excursion out to breakfast and church. I assumed that time would have weighed heavy on her.  As Mr. U’s elderly aunt used to say, “the days drag on but the time flies by.”  My 96-year-old dad says he doesn’t understand where the days go when he doesn’t really accomplish much.  I get it now. Clock time and our perception of time can be quite different.   

Researchers have come up with a few theories on why it feels like time flies by faster as we age.  Below are the most common thoughts on it. 

  • Our time perception is in relation to how many years we have to compare it to.  For example, when you are five years old, a year is 20% of your life.  If you are fifty years old a year is only 2% of your life.  It makes sense that 20% of your life feels a lot longer, than just a mere 2%.   The 2% is a much smaller portion of our lives, so it feels like it went by quickly. 
  • Some research suggests that, as we age, the rate at which we process the sequence of mental images that make up our day, slows down.  More time passes between processing each image so it feels like there is not enough time and it is going too fast.  Younger people are able to process many more images per second.  It is likened to a slow-motion video that captures thousands of images and all those images have to be processed, so it feels like more time.  Whereas processing just one or two images feels quicker.
  • As we get older, we may not have as many different life events or as much variety in our lives.  We get settled into our routines. If we are doing the same thing every day, the days tend to blend together and there isn’t much to set them apart, so it is perceived that time went by quickly.  The less rich your days are, the more it seems like they went by quickly. 
  • My theory.  I can’t help but wonder that as we age, we have a heightened awareness of our mortality and so we perceive that we are moving too quickly towards that time.  Think about when you were younger and looking forward to Christmas.  It felt like the days dragged on until that delightful morning when you could tear into those packages that you had been anticipating.  However, if it is something that you are not looking forward to, such as having to clean your room, the start of school, or becoming frail, then the time goes by too fast before that dreaded moment.  No research study to prove this, just my school of thought. 

Putting on the brakes.

When we perceive that time is going too fast, it causes anxiety.  Think about a timed test versus one without a time constraint.  How about the stress you feel when you need to get something done on a timeline?  While some people work well under such pressure, it still creates anxiety.  One of the benefits of retirement is that we should be under less stress.  I spent enough years under the gun, rushed and trying to make every minute count just to keep my head above water.  I don’t want to feel that kind of push/pull and stress in retirement. 

So, how do we slow down our perception of time and thus decrease anxiety?  Below are some recommendations from the literature:

  • Make our days richer and more interesting.  Adding new experiences to try will make your time feel longer.  So, taking a class, trying a new hobby or going on a trip somewhere new will add time expanse to your life. 
  • It seems counter-intuitive that living a routine life makes time go faster, but that is one of the theories.  Therefore, if we change up our daily routine frequently, it will help slow down our perception of time.  Take a different route to the gym, go to a different coffee shop or try a new recipe for dinner.
  • One study from Cambridge suggested that being well rested will help slow down our perception of time because we are able to be more active and accomplish more when we are rested.  Hence, we have more mental images which will slow down our perception of time. 
  • One of the most common recommendations to help slow down our perception of time is to be more mindful.  By the time we retire most of us have learned the fine art of multitasking to get everything done we needed to.  But research suggests focusing on one thing at a time.  Get fully engaged in something to help slow down our perception of time.  This has the added advantage of decreasing anxiety. 

And so…

We all have the same 24 hours in a day. We can’t control that.  However, to some extent, we can control how we perceive time.  My take-away from this is that we need to add variety and texture to our days and weeks.  We need to try new things and change up our routines.  We need to be more mindful and focus totally on what we are doing. We need to be shaking things up a bit and be fully engaged in life.   Doesn’t sound all that hard to me. Matter of fact, that sounds pretty darn fun. And it should have the side benefit of slowing down our perception of time.

On the home front.

Mr. U had a birthday last week.  We celebrated with family the week prior, so I wanted to surprise him with something on his real birthday.  (Maybe doing something unexpected would even slow down our perception of time.)  I had been trying to get a reservation at Quinn’s Hot Springs Resort for several months, but they have been booked solid.  Desperately looking for a place to stay on his birthday, I took one more look at their reservation website and found they had a cancellation on his exact birthday.   I booked the room quickly before it got snatched up and told him to hold the day aside. No explanation.

It is not easy pulling off a surprise for someone when they live with you.  I had to be stealth.  I packed our bags and loaded the car with presents, birthday candles, matches, and a cooler with beverages, snacks and a small cheesecake (Mr. U is not a fan of regular cake.)  I covered it all with a blanket (I am so tricky) and slipped it into the back of the car.  He had no clue where we were going, or that it would be overnight, when we set off.  He did figure it out when we were about halfway there.  Understandably since there is not a lot out that direction. But it was fun keeping him questioning up to that point. Of course, the first thing he asked was whether I brought him some cloths and a swimsuit. Lucky thing I remembered to pack for him too.

Quinn’s is about 2 ½ hours from us, tucked under the vast mountains and open sky of Montana.  The cozy wood lodge is alongside the banks of the Clark Fork River.  When we checked into our room we were greeted with a complimentary bottle of wine and snacks. They also provide guests with big, fluffy white robes to wear while roaming back and forth to the pools. We donned swimsuits and our robes, poured a couple glasses of wine and sunk into the warm pools as evening descended.  The hot springs are tucked into a rocky hillside, and they silently demand a quiet hush as the steam rolls off the water.  The smell of sulfur reminds you that these are natural hot springs, which just adds to the magic.  Between the hushed voices at the pool and everyone in white robes, we might have looked just a bit like a monk monastery.

I got a late reservation for dinner at the Harwood House restaurant which is one of two places to eat at the resort.  Other than that, there are not any restaurants close by.   The atmosphere continues with the cozy lodge feel and the food was prepared perfectly. 

I am not sure the theories about slowing down our perception of time worked, because our short stay went all too fast.  But looking back over the course of the week, it should, theoretically, slow down our perception of time.  In the meantime, I hope you do something to shake things up, add some extra images to your week and slow down your perception of time.  Speaking of which, I am not good at wasting time in retirement.   So, I am taking a couple weeks off from my blog to waste a little time, play, do something new and see if I can’t slow down my awareness of time.   See you in a couple of weeks!