Why Does "Time Fly" as We Get Older?
Thinking about experience, memories, and the passage of time.
Posted September 6, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Since we cannot remember a time before we existed, our experience—our existence—is what we have on which to base the passing of time.
- With more and more experiences, we build heuristics for how to engage events and occurrences in our lives as time passes on.
- Find joy and excitement in your life in the now and drink it up, regardless of how bad things are or what you're waiting for.
According to many perspectives within the behaviorist tradition, we are brought into this world with a blank slate or tabula rasa—meaning that the basis for our knowledge, actions, thoughts, and feelings is gained through experiencing life, as we are not born with such things. Indeed, a very philosophical, related take on this standpoint is also akin to the cognitive tradition in this respect—what we experience, our learning from these experiences, and our ability to remember them…our memories make us who we are.
With that, think about your childhood. I’m sure there are very specific vacations, holidays, birthdays, and summers that you can remember vividly. Perhaps an entire year might be firmly contained in your memories. On the other hand, you might find that the past 10 years have completely flown by on you. Why?
Think about being five years old. If you were asked to think about your "entire life," it would seem like quite a long time. However, your parents might have laughed at this, regaling you with stories from before you were born. For them, five years is nothing, and that’s because they were so much older, having experienced much more in their lives.
Time Is Relative
Not to get all "quantum physics" here, but time is relative. Since we cannot remember a time before we existed, our experience—our existence—is what we have on which to base the passing of time. So, where five years for a 37-year-old is nothing (hell, I remember 2017 just like yesterday), it is literally a lifetime for a five-year-old (not to mention the fact that children don’t generally start building coherent memories until after age 2). So, ask yourself, What were you doing five years ago? Does it seem that long ago? Can you even remember what you were doing?
With more and more experiences, we build heuristics for how to engage events and occurrences in our lives as time passes on. When people ask you, "What’s new?" we often have the common response, "Nothing much," because, quite honestly, we no longer rate many of our new experiences as very interesting. Of course, if we buy a new car or house, or maybe have just gotten back from a vacation abroad, we might consider these as exciting. However, going food shopping or getting new bedsheets isn’t particularly newsworthy.
On the other hand, for anyone who has young kids, going food shopping is an adventure and new bedsheets is a massive game-changer. That’s because these events are adventurous or game-changing for kids, simply because they don’t have the level of experience or point of reference that we do. Again, it’s relative.
I remember finishing high school and thinking back about my academic career up to that point—Wow, that was a long journey. But then, college flew by, and, suddenly, I was a proper adult. Next thing I know, I’ve got a family of my own and have gray in my beard. I recall that reflective moment I had at the end of high school because my Dad made the point on the day of my graduation—as many parents and grandparents do—that time goes by so fast. "Time flies by," said Dad, "…so take time to enjoy life, for what it is, as you live it, because one day, you’ll be old like me, telling your kids how fast it goes."
Now, I’m 37, and, though I’m certainly not "old" (depending on who you ask, of course), it’s been a little over half my life since my Dad asked me to think on that after graduating high school. Like many others, maybe I didn't heed that advice as well as I could have. What I do know is that the second half went by a hell of a lot faster than the first, and I’m not dying here or anything like that; rather, I'm just thinking about how important it is to be mindful of the present and, essentially, counting my blessings, as opposed to "dreaming of the future" as we often get caught up doing (e.g., one day meeting the right person, buying a house, or having the perfect job).
It’s funny how I used to think about "old people" and the advice they give—"Things were better back in my day" (e.g., declinism) and all that kind of stuff. But, those who talk about time flying—yeah, it’s true, especially when you sit down and reflect. So, that’s what this is—not so much a lament but, rather, a reflection.
So, why does time fly? Time is relative...the experiences we build up and the manner in which we react (or fail to react, for instance, with respect to enthusiasm) to what has become our "everyday events" facilitate this "flying by." Now, we could go on and on about the relativity of time, why childhood events stick with us, and why we can’t even remember what we had for breakfast, but that’s not the endpoint of this piece. What good is that for someone in their late 30s or older, apart from having a simple, blog post–sized explanation?
Don't Wish Your Life Away
The point is, we’re not getting any younger here and—a related piece of advice my Mom gave me time and time again—"Don’t wish your life away." Stop "wishing" and waiting for the next milestone in your life. You might be waiting a while, and, as time goes by, we might wind up feeling we wasted most of our time simply waiting. Think about five-year-old you and all the joy and excitement that version of you got from the mundane.
One of the best pieces of advice that I can give regarding coping strategies is somewhat akin to perspectives from the "mindfulness craze": Be present in the now. Find joy and excitement in your life in the now and drink it up, regardless of how bad things are (as you might perceive them) or what you're waiting for, because if and when you finally get what you want, it might not be as great as you initially thought, and all you’ve really got to show for it is wasted time.
To conclude, my three-year-old has recently learned how to ask for "five more minutes" before bed, like many parents will well know about. Maybe you recall asking for those five minutes yourself. Well, if your kid has been good, give them the five minutes—it’s not much to you, and it's a whole lot to them, and it gives you just a little bit of extra time to spend with them.