View Full Version : A year seems shorter the older you get... why?

08-01-2002, 09:45 AM
The four years since I left graduate school seem to be much shorter than the four years that I was _in_ graduate school. And those grad school years seem shorter than the 4 years that I was in college. And those 4 years were apparently much shorter than the 4 years of jr. high and high school.

Everybody seems to agree that it's a common enough experience (altho I think depressing as all hell). But I'm curious as to whether and why this is true.

1. Is it an illusion? Does 4 years here seem about the same as 4 years there, and the longer ago it was, the longer the stretch of time seems?

2. If the subjective time contraction affect is for real, about the only explanation I've ever heard is this:
a. The subjective amount of time you have lived - how long it feels like you've been alive - is either constant or changes extremely slowly (is this even true?)
b. Each passing year is a smaller and smaller fraction of the amount of time you've been alive.
c. So, if in the strange algebra of subjective experience, 20 years = 10 years, 1 year at 20 years < 1 year at 10 years.

Is this explanation something that can be verified? Or challenged with real evidence, not-just-introspective evidence? Even ideas on how it can be tested would be interesting... or alternative explanations.

08-01-2002, 09:49 AM
When you are in college you have different courses every semester so you can remember the years by what you were taking. Once you start working, there are fewer markers for the years so as you look back it all kinda runs together, making the time seem smaller. Or is this a whole other issue?

08-01-2002, 09:57 AM
I believe that the correct answer is 2b. Each year new year is a smaller percantage of your life thus far.


08-01-2002, 10:03 AM
I'd say that's part of it.

The other part simply seems to be a side effect of aging. When you first encounter something it seems new because you have nothing to compare it to. Later, when you encounter something again, you can compare it to the first and your brain has an easier time filing it.

Another part is that as you age you have a much easier time dealing with time and filling it up with things to do.

08-01-2002, 10:04 AM
Originally posted by hajario
I believe that the correct answer is 2b. Each year new year is a smaller percantage of your life thus far.

Haj I'll go with 2b...or not 2b. But then, that's the question, isn't it?

08-01-2002, 10:08 AM
My guess on this topic :

The older you grow, the less new experiences you have. When you don't have any new experience over a given period of time, this period appears empty (nothing sticks out) in retrospect, hence appears to have been shorter than another period full of novelty. For instance, your day at work can seem as long to you than your day at school when you were 8 y.o. But when you look back at your lask week, if there nothing particulary sticking or worth remembering, nothing that you didn't do the week before, and the month before that, you will have extremely few memories from this week. It will feel like this last week/month/year was extremely short (though if you find you job boring, you probably didn't feel the work hours were actually short while you were at your office.

Something which, in my experience, back this theory. When you do something new and unusual (say you're going to some faraway country for a couple of week), the corresponding period seems subjectively way longer than a similarily long period during which you did ordinary things (like a week at work). Perhaps it's not a feeling that everybody share, in which case my explanation is off base, but in my case, it's extremely true. The more new and unusual things I do, the more new references I accumulated (like in : during this week I played this sport for the first time, and began a new job, and meet this girl, and had this tooth extracted and it hurted like hell, etc...), the longer this period will appear subjectively in retrospect.

08-01-2002, 10:11 AM
I agree with kayT, but with the added point that as you get older and experience more new things, fewer and fewer things have the same novelty about them as they did when you were younger. So even though you may have the same markers at 25 (after having left the academic world) as you do at 65, the lack of novelty through the years makes "it all kinda runs together, making the time seem smaller."

08-01-2002, 10:20 AM
Ok, why is everyone being so clever about this? I thought I was the only one getting older.

I'll add a strong guess that as children we estimate time in terms of milestones, such as when allowance is coming, when bedtime is coming, when summer vacation is coming.

As we get older, not only do our old milestones fade into insignificance, but the things that we hope to accomplish change in scale to: yearly vacations and taxes, kids getting married, and retirement. Those things consume adults. So when we look on things like "when is the next paycheck coming" the milestones, and our perception of time, seems sometimes to pass in a hurrried blur.

Charlie Tan
08-01-2002, 10:41 AM
You don't have fewer new experiences the year you're going from 39 to 40, as compared with the year you went from 18 to 19. There are the same amount of days, weekend and bedtimes. The amouint of things you experience has to do with what kind of life you're living.
So if amount of experiences had anything to do with this psychological phenomenon, then everybody would not agrre on it. And too many do for any explanation having to do with how crammed your lifestyle is.

But if you have a consistant lifestyle from 25-40, you will still experince that it feels like the years zip by faster. You're not in school or hace milestones about coming of age. It's just that 200 odd new experiences a year (too pick a number) makes what you went through between 39 and 40 be only 6,66 (asf) % of your experiences during these fifteen years. When you hit 50, with a constant lifestyle, the new things you do will amount to 4% of everything you've done in 25 years, markedly less than the present year between 39 and 40. in fact. it's about 40% less new experiences, even though the factual amount is constant.

So yeah, it's 2b or Einstein. Relativity anyway.

08-01-2002, 02:28 PM
I'll have to disagree with clairobscur about the new experiences making things go slower...I just lived in France for a school year teaching, which I'd never done before, travelling extensively, and all in all doing a lot of new things. Now, compared to say, a year in high school, it went by lightning fast. But they say that time flies when you're having fun, right?

Here's a theory...

When you're in high school, you don't have much of a choice about what you do...sure, you have a choice whether to take latin or greek, french or spanish, history or science or whatever. But you have to go to school, you have to do what your parents say. Now, you can still enjoy life with those constrictions, but maybe it goes faster after that because you're more free to explore things you want to, to create your own schedule with work and play.


I'd also agree with the people that have been talking about when you're older a year just doesn't seem as long. When I was in elementary school, a year was an age. I mean, when you're six, seven, a year is a major portion of your life. When you're 23, it starts to be a much less significant time counter, especially when you don't have semesters to quantify it with. So it blends.

08-01-2002, 04:21 PM

When you are young you look forward to each event, some more than others. You want to be older, taller, stronger, smarter, "more developed", out of school, etc. But you can't fast forward these things, you have to wait. And it takes forever.

When you are older there are fewer things that you have to wait for and look forward to. Think about how badly you wanted to be at the next birthday marker as a child (5, 7, 10) and then as a teenager (16 you can drive, 18 you are "grown-up", 21 you can drink, etc). There are few of these as you get older, and they can start to be more negative than positive. Few people look forward to turning 30, 40, 50, etc. We laugh and make fun of these milestones but they do tend to remind us of our mortality. Even the positive things (children moving out of the house, paying off mortgages) can have some negative connotations. When you aren't looking forward to something happening then it almost always comes up to fast. For example at the end of the summer you ask "where did the time go?"

08-01-2002, 06:15 PM
What ShibbOleth is talking about is also known as logtime. (http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/jmkenney/)

Personally, I'm sceptical about logtime, since I don't think the human perception of time is that orderly. However, I did once read an article, that I can't find online, about some psychological experiments which had found that our perception of time does change as we get older, regardless of lifestyle; according to this article, it was a simple biological fact, though the reason's not known. Some studies also posit changing metabolism as one of the reasons for changing time perception, considering how much quicker wounds heal in children.

I don't think the question of why time appears to move faster can be answered until we have some idea of how we perceive time in the first place, what 'senses' we use to detect time passing.

08-02-2002, 12:57 AM
This is so wacky!

My Dad and I were just discussing this very issue. I explained to him that I agreed with one of Alvin Toffler's theories from his book, Future Shock. The theory I liked is what we in this thread know as 2b, the time a year takes is a smaller percentage of the total time you've been alive. I made a chart in excel from 1 to 100 and then in the next column I made a calculation of the percentage of 1 year. I then graphed the columns and found the log effect mentioned previously.

However I was a bit bummed when the data did not fit my hypothysis. I guessed that the greatest change in the curve, therefore the greatest acceleration, would occur at the stereotypical 'mid-life' chrisis age of 35 or so. Looking at my curve it occured at age 29-30, a bit earlier than I predicted.

It really bugged me until I realized that I did not take into account the ability to remember. My earliest memories are from age 4 or 5, so if you shift the second column down 4-5 years, then the curve convieniently shifts to the right, putting the greatest change in slope right in the mid-life chrisis zone. Yay!

So if you are having a mid-life chrisis, it may be that on some level you realize that your life is passing you by.


08-02-2002, 01:00 AM
p.s. to get a sense of how time passes, go see Memento!

Hail Ants
08-02-2002, 01:21 AM
I think its more just a state of mind than any mathematical formula.

When you're young time is (like most things) a restriction. You only view it in terms of having to wait for it to pass to get something that you want, i.e. Christmas, birthdays, summer vacation etc.

When you're more mature time is (again, like everything) a resource. You view it in terms of having to make the best use of the often limited amount you have, i.e. paying bills, taking a vacation from work, having kids etc.

Bad Hat
08-02-2002, 01:36 AM
i opened this thread expecting it to be a no-brainer...

(i think 2b is the answer)

as a year becomes a smaller and smaller percentage of your life, its less significant. I've always thought this and kind of took it as intuitive.

When i was a kid and got 2 dollars a week for allowance.. 50 was a lot of money... now that i make.... a lot mroe than that... i wouldn't think twice about losing 2 dollars, or even ten dollars generally. Because its a smaller percentage of the total amount of money i have.

When you are 10, a year is a tenth of your life (!!!!), now its only a 30th or a 40th etc...

so i'm still goin' with 2b.

08-02-2002, 07:15 AM
There is at least a partial factual answer. Please search the archives, I did this once before. You can also search Google and find info.

This is evidence to show that our perception of time is strongly related to our body temperature. As we get older our body temperature decreases by a couple degrees. Therefore, we percieve differently.

I wouldn't say any of these other theories are wrong, but this is at least one component that has scientific evidence behind it.

08-02-2002, 07:33 AM
The thread is here (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=69561&highlight=body+temperature).

The body temperature aspect is quite interesting. I was a bit skeptical of it at first, but the evidence seems pretty compelling. I think this combined with 2b is the most logical conclusion.

08-02-2002, 09:22 AM
Originally posted by clairobscur
My guess on this topic :

The older you grow, the less new experiences you have. .......

I tend to agree with clairo and let me add an analogy here. Just think about how you feel when you drive to a completely new place. You are not sure of the way, you look for landmarks to remind yourself of the way back etc. Doesn't the way in to a new place always seem longer than the return journey?

Victory Candescence
08-02-2002, 09:53 AM
I might throw in the hypothesis that our brains have a limited capacity of memories. Once we reach that limit, we have the same number of memories for our whole lives.

Thus, at 40 we have twice as much time covered by the same amount of memories than at 20, making it seem emptier.

08-02-2002, 12:28 PM
I think its just how busy you are. Wait until you don't have any thing to do & see how slow time is.

08-02-2002, 12:32 PM
I'm with Clairobscur, who brought up something I had noticed myself. When I go away for the weekend and have something new and interesting planned for every minute, it seems like a week. I've also noticed that trips out seem to take much longer than trips back.

But Hail Ants came up with an excellent point...the view of time as a Resource (never enough) vs. the view of time as a Restriction (WHEN will it EVER END?!?). This is especially true for me at work...surely I am not the only one who finds that the day flies by when it's busy and I'm racing the clock to get things done, but time drags when I have nothing to do but wait until it's quittin' time.

Hail Hail Ants!

I've always wanted to say that!

08-02-2002, 12:41 PM
I'm more persuaded now that time is marked proportionally. This would fit the observation that the time contraction affect is a function of age, and is cumulative.

I think there's something to the measuring time by events, although I believe that our observations about the passage of time would be different if this were the primary mechanism. And the fact is that I remember being four years old for a very long time. But I remember very few experiences from being 4 years old.

Either way, though, it seems there's got to be some mechanism for setting the "standard" length of an interval - an amount of time that is perceived, and expected to be, a year. This standard could be a fraction of a lifetime (what I'd go with), or a certain number of experiences.

And then somebody on a linked thread said something about drugs... that may tell us something about the way time perception works. My own experience with time-stretching drugs, from years and years ago:

1. If I break up a minute into seconds, I do not find that the apparent lenth of a second is any different from usual. The second hand on the watch does not appear to be frozen, or slowed down at all. But it does seem like there are a lot more seconds in a minute.
2. While I notice thoughts a lot more, and generally seem to have more experiences as time goes by, but I don't remember all that much about it.
3. Even if I remembered next to nothing about an experience the following day, there was at least one case where I felt like I'd had a three day weekend, even if it was only Saturday and Sunday.

08-03-2002, 02:44 PM
originally posted by clairobscur[i]
The older you grow, the less new experiences you have.

[i]originally posted by Nouveau Bozo
I agree with kayT, but with the added point that as you get older and experience more new things, fewer and fewer things have the same novelty about them as they did when you were younger.

In the last 10 years I've had a heart attack, gone to Spain, Italy, England, France to name a few. We are now adding onto our house. All these are new and novel things (well maybe not the heart attack, but it was memorable). So new and/or novel things do not seem to enter into it. The truth is 2b, IMHO.