Is Time a Ferrari or a Donkey Cart?

Time can be, and indeed is, for many people a source of stress. The perception of time or the use we make of the time we have can present a challenge to the mind and be causes of emotional distress. At times, and for some people, time flies by Ferrari-fast. For others, it seems to inch forward in fits and starts, perhaps more akin to the pace of a reluctant donkey.

The Perception of Time

timeimage Rationally, we understand that time passes at a substantially fixed pace with no perceptible variation. The earth rotates around the sun at a precise speed, given or take a few mph’s, and the sun in turn moves around the galaxy at an equally precise speed, give or take a few kmh’s. Our whole universe expands at a measurable rate, as scientists who have been able to measure it tell us. Since the invention of clocks, humans have acquired the ability to slice daylight and nighttime intro those discrete units of measure we call hours. The calendar helps us group hours into days, months, weeks and years. Humans have also agreed among themselves that years can be grouped into decades, centuries and millennia. And that’s how we generally understand, rationally, the passage of time as an objective and measurable phenomenon.

How we perceive the passing of time, however, ends up being far more subjective and somewhat unpredictable. Certain slices of time can appear to one individual to be passing more slowly than for another. Within our own personal experience, there are hours or days or longer periods in which time seems to speed up (especially when we are experiencing something pleasurable), and others in which it seems to slow down (think dentist chair). Excluding any chemical influence that may alter our perception (e.g., medication, alcohol or other artificial or natural mind-altering substances), these different “speeds” of time can indeed be puzzling and seemingly without explanation. In fact, these perceptions can and do induce stress and anxiety about having too little time, or boredom and restlessness about having too much of it. What is happening to the objectivity and predictability of time when it is perceived through our emotions?

The Emotion of Time

Age and one’s mental and emotional state appear to have something to do with the emotional perception of time. Most people recall feeling that time passed very slowly in their childhood and, indeed, young people confirm that, for them, time tends to be perceived as crawling along. Conversely, older people are often heard complaining that time seems to zip along very fast and that, “it seems like yesterday that I was having such and such” or, “where is the day-week-month-year gone? It’s already Christmas!”

In times of distress, especially if traumatic events are occurring, we might perceive every second of time with heightened sharpness, which can contribute to the perception that “time stands still” when something dramatic is happening. The opposite is produced by very positive feelings of pleasure and enjoyment, that are often said to be “way too short” in duration. Indeed, a week’s vacation can go by in just a flash (perception-wise), whereas a week in school or at work may seem like it’s never going to end. Both last exactly one week, by the way.

The Best Way To Handle Time

The best approach to time, emotionally, is to just let it pass. Paying too much attention to the passing of time is counterproductive. In fact, it can be anxiety-provoking and, in addition, take us either too far forward or too far back and render us unable to enjoy the moment.

Thought stopping, a congitive-behavioral technique, can help in this respect. Whenever we catch ourselves paying too much attention to the passing of time (or rather, to its perceived speed), we can say, “stop!” to our thoughts and divert our attention elsewhere. With practice, we may not completely eliminate our preoccupation with time, but we can minimize its impact on our ability to enjoy the present—which is, as a matter of fact, all that we have to enjoy.