How Our Perception of Time Changes as We Get Older
“When will Mommy come, Grandma?” my granddaughter used to ask several times a day when she was little. At first, I assumed she missed her mother. I’m sure that was true some of the time, but usually she didn’t seem sad.
Eventually, I realized she was trying to figure out if there was time to do another puzzle, read another book, or have a tea party with her stuffed animals. Time was fuzzy for her.
She lived in the present, squeezing in as many activities as she could while she had Grandma to herself. Meanwhile, I savored the precious moments we were together, which always seemed to pass too quickly.
At a recent 50th birthday party, the celebrant commented, “I realized today that I have more of life behind me than I do in front of me.”
But what if more means more sunsets? More sunrises? More time to sit on the porch and watch the birds squabble over the seed and suet hanging over the fountain? Time to watch a two-year old trickle sand through her hand in a cascading flow?
Time Is Relative
Time is clearly experienced differently by children and adults. But it’s also experienced differently at 40 than it is at 20; at 60 than it was at 40. Researchers have verified that our perception of time speeds up as we get older.
Two theories explain why this happens. One is that as we age, we stop paying attention to the little details of life — the spider crawling up a fence post, or a ray of light diffracting through a crack in a window.
Children, on the other hand, notice every detail, and each one is new to them. Their little brains are constantly forming new neural connections. Our brains, meanwhile, are losing neural connections. That’s a normal part of the aging process, and it begins about age 40.
The other theory states that as our metabolism slows – another natural outcome of aging – so does our heartbeat and our breathing. Children’s hearts beat faster than ours, and they inhale and exhale more often in a fixed period of time, making it feel for them that more time has passed.
And, according to Janis Newton, Director of the Medical University of South Carolina’s Wellness Center, the only ways to boost metabolism are to add muscle and to increase one’s heartbeat. Which means exercise and good food.
Time Is Precious
When I first retired from full-time teaching, time seemed to slow down. With no hour-long commute each morning, I would rise when I felt like it, dress in whatever I wanted, and dawdle over my morning coffee.
Then I’d make the bed, take my dog for a leisurely walk – a treat for both of us that had been hard to manage when I was working – and wash the dishes.
The first theory above would suggest that my move to a new home caused me to pay more attention to the details of my life and build new neural pathways as I learned the best route to the grocery store, what plants were growing in my garden, what was the best time of day to walk along the shore.
Since I had moved to a new community, I didn’t know people my age, and I began to feel a bit lonely, a bit bored. I knew I couldn’t count on my family to provide a social life, but I wasn’t sure how to get one. Time was passing slowly for me. Too slowly.
At the suggestion of my daughter, I enrolled in a Lifelong Learning course entitled Retirement ABCs, which I’ve written about elsewhere. There I learned that to have a ‘successful’ retirement, I should meet new people, experience new things, get more exercise, have a purpose.
Within six months I had joined a church, volunteered for three organizations, registered for an exercise class and filled the remainder of my calendar with grandchild care, coffee and movie dates with my new friends, whale watching and coastal hikes. Now my days sped by.
But is that what I really wanted? I had already noticed that time was moving more quickly for me than for my granddaughter. Did I really want the days to fly, or did I want to savor them as she did? Without realizing it, I had returned myself to the familiar busyness that had characterized my working life.
For so many years I had been living the over-scheduled life of most Americans, with too much stress and too little sleep, that finding a balance hadn’t even occurred to me.
Changing Our Perception of Time
When my school-year commitment to the young writer’s program ended, I did not volunteer for a second year. And when my term on the board of a local nonprofit was up, I did not stand for reelection. With the removal of each commitment from my calendar I felt relief, and time began to slow down again.
I began taking brisk daily walks around my neighborhood, observing the houses, flowers and trees. I love my exercise class, so I continue to attend regularly. I can feel the results of a faster metabolism. I’m losing weight and I have more energy.
Last year, I spent six months planning a solo trek around Australia, and blogged about my adventures.
This spring my granddaughter and I planted a vegetable garden, and on the days that she doesn’t visit, I watch our garden grow, sipping tea on the porch. Next year, I may write a novel.
Yes, our perception of time does change as we age, but so does our understanding of the value of time. Choose carefully how you use it. Pay attention to the details. And savor the experiences, every moment of them.
How is time passing for you? Have you found the secret to slowing time down? If so, I’d love to hear from you! Please join the conversation below.
Marlene Bumgarner is a retired college instructor. She lives on the California coast and writes about family life, cooking and gardening. Marlene is the author of several books and is currently writing the next one – about raising children, animals and vegetables on a rural plot of land in the 1970s.