Time flies so much faster when we are older.

Four years in college felt like a long time. Four decades later four years went much much quicker.

Everyone agrees. We all feel that way. But why?

I had some debates with friends on this matter. Tentatively, I offered this explanation. For an adolescent every little negotiation in life is an adventure, requiring effort and causing anxiety. By the time we are sixty daily events are mostly routine; we do many things without much thought -- shopping, banking, housekeeping, planning trips, mending and repairing, dealing with formal courtesies, tending the garden, writing documents, finding places, etc. We do these things as a matter of fact, whereas we used to do them with more trepidation and deliberation when we were younger. In fact, one year is an interminably long time for a small child; so much is new, and every action is an exploration.

But I wondered. There is another dimension to the passage of time. We say a week flew by, and we did so little. Does that mean that when we didn't have too much work and had little accomplishment to show, time seemed to have gone more quickly? On the contrary, when we are busy and have a lot to do, days go faster, not more slowly. When we are unemployed, days pass excruciatingly slowly, and we count the days. A demonstrative case of this phenomenon in my experience is spending a day holding a garage sale. In the morning business is brisk, and it's lunchtime in no time. It's four hours from 9:00 to 1:00. But as business slows down, time is almost standstill as we wait for straggling customers to come around. The four hours from 1:00 to 5:00 is a long afternoon. A busy day in the office is quickly over; a slow day drags.

So, there is the amount of work to dispose of and there is the amount of effort that goes into accomplishing that task. Time speeds up with more work and less effort. Fishermen who spend days fishing in retirement should find that their time crawls even though they may be older; I wonder. This suggests that there is a third component in the perception of time, and that is the nature of the work in question. Drudgery slows time; when we are doing what we like and having fun time goes faster. Making work into play speeds up time. As we get older, then, most of us learn to make the best of our work and even turn work into play, whereas earlier in our career we expend more effort mastering the work we do.

When we are hard at work, we want time to pass more quickly. But when we are at play we want a day to last longer. When we are travelling, as a tourist cum research scholar as I do, we pack in a lot in a day and feel as though we accomplished so much more than in a typical day at home. In fact, we actually accomplish a lot more and we never seem to have enough time. More work, carried out effortlessly and playfully, makes time go flying more quickly than ever. We are then content.

This explains in part why, having turned seventy, I enjoy my old age. But then, on reflection, my college years were fully exciting, with no time for respite, and I was certainly very content in those days. Maybe those years sped by, too.

T. Kaori Kitao, 04.04.03


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