It’s obvious that the seasons change and time moves forward, yet the passing of time can still feel like a surprise. We’re supposed to live and work and have fun, all while processing the existential and theoretical construct that is time? That seems unreasonable.
Why the concept of time can feel just too extra could be because our brain isn’t the best at understanding it in the moment, and we’re still learning about how time works in general. Philip Gable, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Alabama who studies time perception. He explains that while a lot of work shows how things influence time, scientists still have much to learn about the neural processes that cause us to perceive time.
Gable’s work touches on how states of being influence the perception of time. For example, he and colleagues determined that experiences like sadness and anger, relative to a neutral state, can cause the perception of time to shorten, while a state of disgust can cause the perception of time to lengthen.
"Instead of planning the next exciting chapter of my life, I try to enjoy the one I’m currently living.
In a different study it was found that the phrase “time flies when you’re having fun” isn’t necessarily correct; time flies when you’re in a positive state in pursuit of a goal. In contrast, being in a positive state combined with “low in approach motivation” causes time to pass more slowly. These are moments of contentment that Gable says “may cause us to broaden and savor more information about the situation, thus having a slowing effect on the perception of time.” In turn, this broadening likely encourages people to be more in the moment as opposed to thinking about future plans.
"Instead of planning the next exciting chapter of my life, I try to enjoy the one I’m currently living."
“Time perception is such an important part of our lives every day, because time is one of the most precious resources given to us,” Gable says. “In my own life, my work has taught me to remember to take breaks to savor and remember the moment during the exciting periods when time passes so quickly. Instead of planning the next exciting chapter of my life, I try to enjoy the one I’m currently living.”
One likely reason why high-intensity happiness can cause the feeling of time to fly is because the brain releases dopamine in those moments. In a 2016 study on mice, researchers found that boosting dopamine levels slowed down the mice’s internal clocks. This caused the mice to alternatively under- or overestimate time intervals.
But scientists also suspect that our perception of time links back to a large network of neural areas, not a single brain structure. There’s more to be explored there, but what we do know is that people conceptualize the state of their world via recurrent time patterns from infancy onward, and likely create their estimate of time by combining what we know from our internal clock, dictated by light and the ticking of our watch.
Without those two things, we can feel lost. Case in point are the cave experiments of speleologist Michel Siffre — which were months-long spells in isolation that revealed light and company are essential for having an accurate conception of time.
According to clinical psychologist Melanie Badali, Ph.D., if the passing of time feels like it has hit you like a ton of bricks, “it may be because something has come crumbling down in your life, or you see the end to something.” Badali tells me that she usually encourages people to take advantage of this awareness of time passage, and it presents a good opportunity to do an exercise from a type of psychotherapy called “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” (ACT). This form of counseling incorporates acceptance and mindfulness strategies in an effort to increase an individual’s ability to be fully present in the moment.
"I think it would be more beneficial to see our time as precious.
“I give clients a list of common values that people hold [ike education and family] and ask them to think about how important these different values are to them,” Badali explains. “I then ask them if their life has deviated in any important areas. We use time to prioritize values and then set goals for committed action in an effort to bring how one spends one’s time more in alignment with their values.”
Gable’s research has led him to a similar conception of the use of time.
“How we enjoy and experience it has such an important impact on our daily lives,” he explains. “I think it would be more beneficial for us to see our individual time as precious so that we would invest it in more meaningful ways.”