Time is a slippery concept to talk about because it seems to distort a little more with each year you add to your lifespan. We all remember the days as kids when the eight or so weeks of summer vacation seemed to stretch out for an eternity, and each individual day seemed to hold infinite time for play and fun. We can also recall, as adults, more than one night spent lost in worry or anxiety that seemed never-ending.
Do older folks actually experience time differently than their younger counterparts? Some experts seem to think so. William James first wrote about this phenomenon in 1890 in his work, The Principles of Psychology. He observed that as we age, we experience many of the same things over and over again, as we do the same chores at home, pass the same buildings on the way to work, etc. The lack of newness in our environment makes time seem to accelerate, since we just aren’t paying attention for most of our day. It’s all too familiar to bother.
Over the years, other psychologists and social scientists have studied time and perception and have reached varying conclusions. In 2010, William Friedman (Oberlin College) and Steve Janssen (Duke University) asked people of various ages to assign dates to twelve newsworthy events. Their finding showed that older adults perceived the past ten years as passing more quickly than did younger folks.
Another theory about perceived time differences has to do with how much time pressure we are experiencing at any given moment. As most of us can attest, time seems to compress when we have a long list of things to do in a short period. When we are more relaxed, we feel that we have all the time in the world.
One of the more compelling examinations of time and its effects on older people was done recently by Harvard professor Dan Gilbert, author of the bestseller Stumbling on Happiness. Gilbert and his colleagues asked their research subjects to name things, such as their favorite vacation spot, tastiest foods, best friends and most-enjoyed hobbies. The researchers then asked if the subjects believed they would still enjoy these things as much ten years in the future. The overwhelming tendency was for people to think that the current version of themselves, with all of the accompanying values and preferences, would go on forever.
In other words, people tend to have a hard time imagining that they will change in the future. It’s easier for us all to look back at what we were like at the age of 20, and to see how much we’ve changed since then. But, when tasked with imagining changing personality traits in the future, we fall short. We simply can’t imagine that we can and will become different people as we age.
Why should we care about all of this? Well, if we believe that we will still want to travel through Europe as much when we’re 85 as we might when we’re 60, we’re probably in some denial about how our physical and mental selves will evolve as we age. And, while denial is a typical response to processing unpleasant thoughts, it doesn’t help us in planning for the future.
If we have trouble imagining what our lives will look like in 20 years, we are almost certain to fail in adequately preparing for the changes that will, inevitably, occur. That’s why it’s so important to find tools and develop skills that will help guide us through the process of envisioning the future.
And if you have any doubt that you’ll be around longer than the generations that have preceded you, let me leave you with this tidbit: in the 20th century, more years were added to the human lifespan than ever before in history. When people say today’s longevity is unprecedented, they mean just that. It’s like nothing ever experienced before.
As I think about changes and the passage of time. I like novelist Faith Baldwin’s take on it; she says, “Time is a dressmaker specializing in alterations.” The trick is to have a version of that new dress in mind before you visit the tailor!
Blog by Holly Deni