Time Flies? Life Appears to Speed Up As People Get Older

Many people probably have the feeling that time passes faster now than it did when they were younger. Life seems to speed up as we get older, and researchers have for a long time been curious about this relationship. There are a number of age-related explanations about time acceleration (e.g., a lower number of memorable events in older age; a decrease in the attentional resources of older people).

It appears that there are three general explanations about why people of all ages experience time as passing quickly. The explanations are (1) forward telescoping, (2) difficulty of recall past experiences, (3) time pressure. The explanations seem reasonable, however, only time pressure has received support from evidence (Janssen et al., 2013).

A new paper by Janssen and colleagues (2013) has examined why time seems to speed up as people get older by looking at the variable time pressure. The authors examined a group of 868 people between the ages of 16 and 80. The participants were told to fill out two questionnaires. First,  participants had to answer how fast time seemed to pass.

Secondly, they had answer how frequently they felt busy (i.e., time pressure) now and 10 years ago. The study shows that participants reported time to be passing more quickly when they had been very busy. For this reason, time pressure (or stress) seems to predict how fast time appears to pass. The majority of participants (of all ages) reported that time appeared to be passing quickly.

“People not only use impressions of time pressure when reporting how fast the previous week, month, and year have passed, but also when reporting how fast the previous 10 years have passed.”

The study also shows that being old per se does not predict how we perceive the speed of time. Instead, becoming older makes life appear to speed up because people tend to underestimate past time pressure. This is probably because people are more accurate at estimating present time pressure than past time pressure due to recall difficulties (or a memory bias).

Because of this memory bias, people feel more stressed now compared to earlier in their lives, leaving the impression that life appears to speed up as they become older. Indeed, participants also reported that they had more free time when they were younger.

Image: Tony Verdú Carbó