Why We Feel Time Speeding up with Age

January 21, 2013 — Leave a comment

A few days ago my family and I loaded into our minivan for a dinner out at a nice restaurant.  And my son like a typical eight year old asked how long the drive.  When I told him, he cried, “45 MINUTES! THAT”S GOING TO TAKE FOREVER!”


45 minutes doesn’t feel all that long to me.  But of course when I look back I can remember a moment feeling like an eternity.  Time seemed to move slower when I was eight just as it feels to be moving more quickly now that I’m thirty-five.

Have you ever wondered why that is?  Why time feels like it’s speeding up?

There are a number of reasonable explanations for this apparently universal feeling.  But one theory is more objective than the rest.

Explanation #1: Time Flies with Fun

You’ve experienced how time flies when you’re having fun, right?  And drags when you’re feeling board.  It could be that as we age our experiences only get more engaging.  When we’re young we spend most of our time doing things others want.  But as we get older we find more freedom to do what we want.  Thus as fun replaces boredom we feel time speeding up.

Explanation #2: Routine Gaps in our Memory

But the reverse might also be true.  We remember new and fresh experiences more often than those that are monotonous and routine.  But monotony and routine characterize much of adult life. The result is that when we look back over our life we find memories tightly packed in the freshness of our earlier years but thinning as we grow older.  And so like a person who sleeps more and more each day, the decline in the number of  our memories causes us to feel that the days are simply going by faster.

Explanation #3: Inflating Experience

The subjectivity offered in these first two theories certainly play a role in our perception of time’s speed but there’s another more objective way to account for this universal phenomenon.

>It’s a mathematical fact that as a ratio of our life , each moment is becoming less than the one before.  Just as printing money eats away at the purchasing power of a dollar so each new moment eats away at the perceived value of time.

Think about it.  A year to a one year old is the whole of their life.  But at the age of two it’s half.  At three its a third. Four, a quarter.  And so on.

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Our experience of each new moment is like continually squeezing more slices into an already whole pie.  With each additional slice all the pieces must get smaller. Everything gets smooshed. The distance between the slices grows shorter.  And like a car shortening the intervals between the lines on the road, we feel time accelerating.

But thankfully as you can see the rate of decrease isn’t constant.  It’s exponential.  While we feel time is speeding up it’s no where near the acceleration a child experiences. In fact all our lives the rate at which we feel time speeding up is itself slowing down.  Though we feel time speeding up it doesn’t feel like it’s speeding up quite as fast.

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Besides offering an objective view of our experience, the inflation explanation provides a number of other useful benefits.

In my next post, How to Compare Time Speed Up Between Ages, I will show you how you can objectively compare your experience of time with those older and younger.   The next time you hear a child wine, “45 minutes!” you’ll know exactly how long that experience of time would feel to you.

Question:  Which explanation of time speed-up do you prefer?  Do you have an another alternative explanation? 

Matthew Scott Miller

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