It’s a fact. Time flies if you’re one of the following: old, busy, or having fun. But why? With another year down the tubes, let’s find out once and for all.
Before I get into the nitty gritty, it’s important to note that time doesn’t really shorten. Rather, the perception of it does, depending on how it’s spent. An obvious point, to be sure. But a useful disclaimer nonetheless.
Now, the biggest reason for a loss of time? High concentration. When we’re acutely focused on something—an assignment, a full day’s work, recreation—we simply forget about the ticking clock. “The more attention the task requires, the faster time flies,” says Dr. Anthony Chaston, a researcher at the University of Alberta.
Conversely, time slows to a crawl when we’re bored or detached from what’s going on. “Under the influence of emotions, humans can be extremely inaccurate in their judgments of time,” says a 2007 study of the subject. “For example, the passage of time seems to vary depending on whether the subject is in an unpleasant or pleasant context. It drags when being criticized by the boss but flies by when conversing with our friends.”
But there’s another factor that speeds our perception of time—one that even compounds the effects of attentiveness and emotion. Our age. Since adults have observed more events in life than children, not to mention more years, the time passes faster for them.
“A child’s whole frame of reference is built on a couple years,” explains Dr. Bob Kane, director of the Center for Aging at the University of Minnesota. “Every increment is a bigger piece of their life. As they get older, every increment is a smaller piece as the denominator gets bigger.”
Furthermore, since adults work all the time, they don’t benefit from the typical mile markers that help young people track time, such as spring break, summer vacation, and holidays. The result: grown-ups always feel at a loss for time. “You’re constantly asking yourself, ‘How many more things can I accomplish before my time is up?’” Kane says. “Each moment becomes a little more precious.”
So the next time you wonder where the time went, remember: you left it in your heart. You left it in your youth.
With that in mind, don’t forget to lose yourself in the things you truly enjoy next year.