This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.”
– Gollum, The Hobbit
Time has long seemed to be one of humanity’s greatest foes, a mysterious force that we really only seem to notice when we are its victims. At the end of a vacation we might ask how time went by so fast. When stuck in traffic we wonder how it can move so slow. But it’s rare for us to reflect happily on its passage.
In the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca’s essay “On the Shortness of Life”, the first-century Stoic rebuts the oft-heard claim that life is too short: “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.
But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing… our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.” Seneca argues that we must watch how we spend our time the same way we tend to guard our money.
But what is it that he suggests we save our time for? The study of philosophy, an occupation which brings us out of time completely and allows us to converse with the greatest minds of old – this is what Seneca most valued. On the off chance you don’t share his enthusiasm, modern psychology offers another perspective.
Why does time pass so quickly?
Time Warped is a book by Claudia Hammond which explores the way our minds perceive time. To Hammond, the acceleration of time that we feel isn’t just an error, a trivial mark of our mental weakness. It is an essential aspect of the world of time in which we humans live. Time as we know it does not steadily progress along a linear path, it changes in pace as we look at it forwards and backwards, influenced by our memory and attention. To understand the human struggle with the passage of time we must understand it as a human struggle.
Why does time pass so quickly? Looked at closely you should be able to answer this for yourself. When you are engaged in an activity which you enjoy or which fully captures your attention, you may find that you’ve completely lost track of time and more of it has passed than you had thought. On the other hand, boredom slows it down. Regarding the larger scale of weeks and months, many researchers have found that time seems to have passed more quickly when we have had less new experiences. This explains why many feel that time passes faster as they grow older. The first couple decades of life are filled with new experiences as we sample what life has to offer. Looking back this time seems to have been so well packed with activity that we imagine it must have passed quite slowly. But as we get older and find the patterns most comfortable to us we often notice time speeding up in retrospect, as our memories are filled with less of those new stand-out events.
How do we make time go slower?
Using this information, Hammond offers some suggestions for combating the ailments of time. If you wish to look back and feel that your time has been long and well-spent, actively fill it with new activities. But, she warns, you may find that the relaxing but less note-worthy preoccupations you appreciate are not so much worse. Alternatively, when faced with a block of bored time she suggests the obvious: Find something to keep your attention. She recommends giving the practice of mindfulness a try, closely observing the world around you.
In the book Hammond addresses a myriad of similar topics which share one interesting thing in common: When we look to battle the mysterious withering force of time, we never combat it directly. This is because time was never really fighting us. Our memories may make us fear that we are wasting away. Our boredom may drive us insane. But time looks on, simply serving as a marker to us, a mysterious but unthreatening experience composed of mental processes. You’ll have a hard time escaping it, maybe you’ll save yourself some trouble if you befriend it?
“A book no more contains reality than a clock contains time. A book may measure so-called reality as a clock measures so-called time; a book may create an illusion of reality as a clock creates an illusion of time; a book may be real, just as a clock is real (both more real, perhaps, than those ideas to which they allude); but let’s not kid ourselves – all a clock contains is wheels and springs and all a book contains is sentences.”
– Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues