Living Longer by Stretching Psychological Time

I’d like to live longer. Most people would. Collectively we invest a lot to squeeze more years from our lives: exercising, not smoking, eating healthy and taking whatever supplement cocktail is currently in fashion.

But what about making the years seem longer themselves?

Psychological time is how long time feels. Although we normally equate psychological time and actual time, glitches in our brain show this isn’t actually the case.

How Fast Does Time Fly?

In his book, Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer highlights an interesting experiment on the warping of psychological time:

“In 1962, Michael Siffre spent two months living in total isolation in a subterranean cave, without access to clock, calendar or sun. Sleeping and eating only when his body told him to, he sought to discover how the natural rhythms of human life would be affected by living ‘beyond time.’

“When his support team on the surface finally called down to him on September 14, the day his experiment was scheduled to wrap up, it was only August 20 in his journal. He thought only one month had gone by. His experience of time’s passage had compressed by a factor of two.”

Siffre’s experiment is extreme, but it highlights how our sense of time is not immutable. Moments densely packed with memories get stretched out. Routine and monotony become a blurred montage.

Smoking can cut several years off your life. But Siffre’s experiment seemed to cut time in half. From the perspective of living longer, I think it would be foolish to ignore psychological time.

Does Time Always Speed Up as You Age?

I’ve been told that time speeds up as you age. Five years as a teenager seems far longer than five years midway through life.

I see two explanations for why this happens.

The first is that, as you age, each year becomes a proportionally smaller amount of your life. The last five years of a 15 year-old’s life make up one third. By the time you’re fifty, it’s only 10%.

From this perspective, time accelerates because we judge time relative to the totality of our other experiences. I’m not convinced this hypothesis is correct, but scientists could discover some neurological basis for this time gestalt in the future.

The second, and in my opinion, more likely perspective is that time seems to accelerate because our lives become more routine. For a teenager, every year is different. For a middle-aged office worker, change is gradual.

Of course, if the second hypothesis is correct, that the acceleration of time isn’t a natural byproduct of aging, but due to life becoming increasingly stable, that suggests an alternative for stretching psychological time.

Stretching Time

If time accelerates in routine, it should slow down with novelty.

After finishing my last year here in Winnipeg, it felt as if little time had passed. One year living abroad in France, felt as if I had experienced an entire lifetime.

Living in a foreign culture and language meant every activity, no matter how otherwise banal, became an adventure. I still distinctly remember buying groceries for the first time, struggling to comprehend basic questions in French. I can hardly remember any distinct time buying groceries in Canada.

Does this mean the solution to living longer is to constantly move to different countries? I mentioned this thought to a friend, who correctly pointed out that after some time even that would become routine. Systematic change becomes habit, with time.

Almost any lifestyle or attitude would, over time, reach equilibrium. The life of an international traveller may remain novel for longer than life as an office worker, but eventually, it too would become stable and time would speed up.

Avoiding Equilibrium to Live Longer

The problem of stretching time is a lot like mastering a skill. Initially, there are no habits to guide you, so learning is intense and time slows. Eventually, habits form and you plateau.

The solution, in the case of mastering a skill, is to constantly avoid equilibrium. Always push to the edge of your incompetence, deliberately break your routines, and force big challenges on yourself.

Perhaps the way to live longer has a similar solution. Living at the edge of your experiences, avoiding equilibrium as a way of stretching out psychological time.

What would this mean, in practice? And, to what extent should you value a pleasant lifestyle over the tumultuous necessity of maximizing psychological time?

I’m not sure I have an answer to those questions. But, considering psychological time may perceptually add or subtract years from our lives, it’s definitely worth thinking through.

What are your thoughts on psychological time? Do you think it makes sense to try to deliberately extend time through new experiences? Share your thoughts in the comments!

  • Rusty Marnell

    I really enjoyed this article.
    I’ve found out myself that life is more invigorating if you spend your days doing things out of a routine. A crazy gathering of friends one night, a makeshift street hockey tournament the next, and a midnight race around the neighborhood makes life infinitely more satisfying and full than getting off work and watching the same TV show day after day.
    The more we do, the more we live.
    The essence of life is to experience and grow with each thing we face.

  • Aaron

    Scott, I love this stuff! Thank you for putting a term to it.

    The relative aspect of time may be part of of our retrospective assessment of time, but I agree with you that it is more likely tied to the frequency and intensity of memories. Time seems to accelerate with age because our memories tend to degrade with age, though not having memorable experiences also plays a part, I suspect.

  • bishal rai

    I find that the article does speak about the concept of boredom and how to overcome it in a novel way. I have experienced it but it is deftly articulated here in this article. I understand that variety does add to the variety of our memories and subsequently enriches our life. The keyword here I believe would be balance.

  • sameer

    There is an interesting book on the topic which provides few theories on the ‘why’?

    Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes our Past

  • Pingback: Time Warp « Personal Coaching Blog()

  • Pingback: Time: Is it your Friend or Foe?()

  • Archiffa

    Wow. I’ve been ruminating about the same things myself as well. Your article showed me some things I never thought about and allowed me to view it from a number of different perspectives.

    “As you age, each year becomes a proportionally smaller amount of your life” – never thought of it this way! Interesting! Although I agree with you: it doesn’t seem likely to me that this is what causes your personal perception of time to speed up. Otherwise our perception of time wouldn’t probably slow back down when we travel, right? So I also think the problem is mostly in the routine / automated mode in which we function most part of a regular everyday life.

    “Does this mean the solution to living longer is to constantly move to different countries? I mentioned this thought to a friend, who correctly pointed out that after some time even that would become routine. Systematic change becomes habit, with time.”
    It’s interesting to think about. I’m not convinced by your friend’s words that travelling/moving to new countries will necessarily become a routine if you do it all the time. I think that it needs to be tested and it might depend on the things that you actually do in these countries.
    And doesn’t it contradict a little with what you’re saying later, too? As a way of speeding up time you propose to live on the edge, always pushing yourself from known/familiar. If it was a case with travelling becoming routine, wouldn’t that ‘on the edge’ way of living become familiar too, in time, resulting in your time speeding back up?
    I personally don’t think it will, in both cases.
    I’m not convinced that travelling will necessarily become a routine: if you don’t do the same things you did in one country in all others, or just stay in the hotel all the time, then it seems to me that travelling itself will bring more novelty in your life just because there are new people and places around. Testing this would be interesting. That’s just my thoughts, I realize that they are also unproven and untested, so I can be wrong.

    I would really like to know what kind of results you’re having if you’re going to experiment with slowing down your personal time.

    My 2 cents:
    In addition to time slowing down during travelling, I experienced it when I did the following: I attempted to change my mood throughout a day to a more positive one, or just monitored it constantly. So I actually made small records about the way I felt, every 5 minutes or even every minute some days (asked myself what I felt and wrote down a number from 1 to 10 corresponding to my emotional state in a notebook). It is a tricksy thing to do and it is somewhat uncomfortable to always carry a notebook with you or take out your phone and write something down in it every minute or five. But I’ve noticed how much monitoring my mood and systematic attempts to change my emotional state slowed my perception of time, even though I was actually in the middle of a regular routine day and nothing else changed.

    From this I concluded that it’s not only ‘new’ things that slow down your perception of time. It seems that it is things to which you pay attention, events that yank you out of the routine mode. The amount of such events in a period of time.

    That leads to fascinating parallels with physics: in mechanics we have speed, space and time. In human perception of time, space is roughly equivalent to events that capture your attention. The more events occur in a period of time, the faster is your mental ‘speed’. Your perception of time depends on that speed, so it’s relative. If you ‘speed up’ your life by experiencing more events, your time goes slower than that of other people or yourself when you’re not in the “acceleration mode”. A perceptional theory of relativity :) and an interesting notion to ponder on.