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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 31-Dec-17


Sunday 31-December-17

The years spin by: the psychology of time perception and how our priorities change

Well that's it. 2017 done and dusted. Good stuff and bad stuff, as most years, and whether we see it as one or the other has more to do with our attitude than what actually happened. Because how we experience life and especially how we remember it is what makes our lives pleasant or not. Another common perception that is much remarked upon at this time of year is how fast time flies by. Life is like driving down a road with your foot hard down on the accelerator. Things go by faster and faster until one day, a wall pops up in front of you and that's the end of your journey. Sometimes we see the wall from a way off and sometimes it appears so quickly it is all over in a moment.

How we perceive time is kind of funny. We classically have five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. We also know that there are four things in the universe: space, time, energy and matter. We can detect space, energy and matter with our senses, but what about time? We can't see, hear, taste, smell or touch it. So how do we perceive it? The answer is that it is a mental construction. We imagine it as an explanation for changing experience. Time flies when we're having fun and drags when we are bored.

So why do older people in particular complain about the speedy passage of time? One way we assess time is by comparing the time we have spend in our lives with the time we have left to live. For children, their future lives stretch infinitely outwards, while older people know that most of their lives are done and the wall could pop up any time now. This happens too to the terminally ill, who strive to make the best of the limited time left they have. If you were told you had only a month to live, what would you do? Probably something different to what you have planned (if anything) for the coming 30 days.

What is important for us changes as time goes by. When we are young, having fun is often the most important. If we are lucky, we will enjoy learning, as this pays most back in future years, though another tricky factor gets us here: the areas of the pre-frontal cortex in the brain where we imagine the future does not develop fully until we are in our early twenties. In middle age, time floats by as we are often too busy getting on with our lives with jobs, relationships, families and children. Then children leave and jobs end and our remaining years stretch out before us, fading away into a worryingly near term. In that autumn period if we are lucky enough to be self-sufficient, we may seek to do those things we could not afford or had no time for earlier in our lives. We take up new hobbies. We travel and see the world. We reconnect with old friends and make new ones. Or maybe we stare into the approaching headlights like frightened rabbits.

And so, as we stand on the brink of 2018, what will your priorities be for the year? Are you looking ahead? Imagine you are standing here a year hence, looking back. What do you want to say you have achieved? Because now is the time to look forward to the real differences you want to make. And there is one thing that you must do in order to get it: think differently. If you think how you always thought, you will get what you always got. Is that enough? No? So think again. Change your attitude, change your future.

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