It feels like a cruel joke by the universe. When you’re a kid and you’ve got your whole life ahead of you, the days go by as slow as molasses. One week in school? An eternity. But once you’re an adult—and you start to realize just how finite your time on earth is—the weeks simply fly by. And the older you get, the more likely you are to utter the phrase, “Was that really a year ago already?,” with existential horror.
As it turns out, there are some scientific theories on why our concept of time seems to speed up with every passing year. The ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos, which refers to time that can be measured by clock and calendars in days, minutes, seconds, etc., and kairos, which refers to how we perceive how much time has passed.
Have you ever noticed that when you’re on vacation or in love that an entire day can feel like a week? That’s because, in those magical moments, we perceive the world in the same way that a child does. Everything is new, memorable, and exciting. Our brains are flushed with dopamine, our senses capture every detail around us, and our memory clings on to every impression. Because our brains are processing so much information, time feels considerably elongated.
This theory is bolstered by the fact that our dopamine levels tend to start dropping around 20, which makes it even harder to view your day-to-day reality with the same enthusiasm as a kid once did.
“The theory goes that the older we get, the more familiar we become with our surroundings,” Dr. Christian “Kit” Yates, a lecturer in mathematical biology at the University of Bath, wrote for The Conversion in 2016. “We don’t notice the detailed environments of our homes and workplaces. For children, however, the world is an often unfamiliar place filled with new experiences to engage with. This means children must dedicate significantly more brain power re-configuring their mental ideas of the outside world. The theory suggests that this appears to make time run more slowly for children than for adults stuck in a routine.”
Another theory suggests that the reason time goes by faster as we age is because our metabolism slows down, and with it, so does our heart rate and breathing. Because children take more breaths than older adults, they are, in a literal sense, living more in one day than their elderly counterparts.
The most mathematical theory posits that humans apply a “logarithmic scale” to time as opposed to a linear one, meaning the way we perceive time is relative.
“To a two-year-old, a year is half of their life, which is why it seems such an extraordinary long period of time to wait between birthdays when you are young,” Yates wrote. “To a ten-year-old, a year is only 10% of their life, (making for a slightly more tolerable wait), and to a 20-year-old it is only 5%. On the logarithmic scale, for a 20-year-old to experience the same proportional increase in age that a two-year-old experiences between birthdays, they would have to wait until they turned 30. Given this view point it’s not surprising that time appears to accelerate as we grow older.”
However, there are actions you can take to make time move slowly at any age, especially if you subscribe to the theory that the banality of our routines is what makes it go by so fast. Travel. Try new things. Get high on the natural drug that is dopamine. Fall in love as often as possible. Relish every moment. Be a kid again.
After all, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life, it’s the life in your years.”
And for more scientific advice on how to make the most of your years, check out how I Took Yale’s Happiness Course and Here’s Everything I Learned.
To discover more amazing secrets about living your best life, click here to sign up for our FREE daily newsletter!