Stress and the Flow of Time

Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is eternity.
Henry Van Dyke

The passage of time’s objective and subjective dimensions are probably one of the most difficult dichotomies to comprehend. How can time be a quantifiable, exact dimension and at the same time be so easily manipulated by our emotions?  Is it time that changes according to who perceives it, or is the perceiver who is somehow capable of modifying time’s allegedly immutable length?

tehachapi flowers Most of us frequently experience a slowing down or a speeding up of time. Time seems to slow down in times of boredom, but also in times when a significant stressor seems to burden us constantly with “no end in sight.” Time appears to “stand still” in situations of grave danger or great disaster.

There is also the widely reported but little studied notion that time speeds up as we age, whereby plenty of older men and women are frequently under the impression that the days and years of their lives are just “slipping away.” And who hasn’t heard a teenager complain that it takes “forever” to the time of graduation, to a driver’s license, to next summer, or event just to the end of the school week?

The Stress of Fast Time or Slow Time

The perception of time in these circumstances, when it is either felt as being too slow or too fast, is a stressor. Its consequences are visible in the harried, hurried, worried feeling of not having enough of it. Or they are seen in the bored, unmotivated, debilitating feeling of not knowing what to do with it. Google returns about 192 million results for the keywords time management. The widespread idea that “time is money,” originally attributed to Benjamin Franklin, has turned into a modus operandi on Wall Street, Silicon Valley and all other business-relevant addresses.

But there is a type of time perception that is actively sought by everyone and which often seems to elude us. It is a distorted sense of time, just like the ones I mentioned above, but unlike them it is a distortion that feels wonderful. This time perception is flow, also known as “the zone” or “the groove” or “on the ball.” Read more after the jump.


Flow was fully described in 2005 by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as “the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity” (i).

How To Achieve Flow

For anyone who has an activity that absorbs their attention completely, the feeling is a well-known one. But many of us do not have such activity or do not have the time (no pun intended) to immerse themselves in it. And yet, flow is so pleasurable that there is great interest in ways to induce it voluntarily and more frequently.

What does it take to create the conditions that are most conducive to the experience of flow? Research (ii) tells us that the following conditions usually accompany the experience of flow:

  • Clear goals, whereby expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities.
  • Concentrating and focusing to a high degree on a limited field of attention.
  • A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, i.e. the merging of action and awareness.
  • A distorted sense of time, whereby one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
  • Direct and immediate feedback, such as successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed.
  • Balance between ability level and challenge, whereby the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult.
  • A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  • The activity is intrinsically rewarding, such that there is an effortlessness of action.
  • Becoming absorbed in the activity, whereby the focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, with action and awareness merging into one.

Daunting. But the good news is that not all are needed at once for flow to be experienced.

(i), (ii) Csikszentmihalyi, M., Abuhamdeh, S., & Nakamura, J. (Eds.). (2005). Flow. New York: Guilford Publications, Inc.