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!