Last week my wife and I pedaled our tandem up Roger’s Pass, high in the Canadian Rockies. Our legs ached and our butts were sore. So yes, we complained a few times during the 800-mile journey from Calgary, Alberta to Vancouver Island. But we stretched what might be life’s greatest asset: Time.
OK, I get it. Time can’t be altered. A month is a month. A year is a year. Or is it?
Dr. David Eagleman, a specialist on the perception of time, says when we repeat the same tasks, time moves more quickly than when we’re doing something new. This might be one of the reasons time starts racing like a Kenyan runner once we enter life’s final quarter.
When we were children, our lives changed as often as a newborn’s nappies. Our bodies morphed monthly. Our relationships were schizophrenic. One week, a kid punches us in the nose or fires ketchup on our favorite shirt. The next week, we’re chumming it up with that same kid at a sleepover. Our routines, likes and dislikes changed. We learned crazy amounts of things in short amounts of time.
Adults usually don’t. But nor do they try. We slide into routines; we learn less. One year blurs into the next. But it doesn’t have to.
Consider when you took your last vacation. Not the daily beachside sun-baker but the one where you faced challenges or different experiences. When you were one week into your two-week trip you asked, “Has it really been just seven days since we got off that plane?”
We felt like that during our cycling trip. One night, we stayed at a hostel with forest firefighters. Another time, we shared stories with a heli-ski guide who worked for the rich and (sometimes) famous. We also slept in a logger’s Airstream trailer. And we asked plenty of questions. We knew nothing about the bears we saw, the local economy, the glaciers, and the visible ravages of global warming. But we learned.
As Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College says, “Attention and memory play a part in our perception of time. To accurately gauge the passage of time required to accomplish a given task, you have to be able to focus and remember a sequence of information.”
This isn’t novel. Scientific American’s Jordan Gaines Lewis referenced what psychologist William James said in 1890. Time seems to speed up because adulthood is accompanied by ever fewer memorable events. With children, the passage of time is measured by many first-time events (first kiss, first day of school, first family vacation). So time appears to pass slowly.
But since time is a rubbery matter of perception, we can trick ourselves into living longer—or at least perceiving that we do so. These activities would do the trick:
Learn a new language
Few things are going to stretch your brain like language acquisition. You’ll experience so many new “firsts” as you struggle with initial words and sentences. You’ll measure the months or years you spend learning by your achieved, hard-earned milestones.
Visit a Foreign Country
Forget about hiding in a resort. Each day will blend into the next. Instead, make friends with the locals. Ask questions. Learn everything you can about where you are. You’ll have a richer (and longer) experience doing so.
Learn A New Sport Or Skill
Much like learning a foreign language, you’ll be challenging yourself with new ideas, meeting new people, and enjoying the kind of steep learning curve that children experience. You may not live any longer. But your perception of time will stretch.
At least once a week, try something different. Invite a near-stranger home for dinner. Organize a neighborhood potluck. Go dancing, swimming, bird watching, fishing…anything you don’t normally do.
Everybody knows we can’t live forever. But if we slow time down by enjoying our moments and adding variety, we can experience the next best thing.