I start today by solving an arithmetic story problem. It is one that was triggered by a comment on Facebook that said, “Do you realize that on March 11, 1986 it had been a million days since the founding of Rome? That happened on April 21, 753 BCE.” That made me wonder what the day count would be today. So, I used the standard decade and year counts to calculate it:
1 decade = 3,652.5 days
1 year = 365.25 days
It has been three decades and a year since March 11, 1986. So I hauled out my pocket calculator and did the arithmetic.
1,000,000 + (3 X 3,652.5) + 365.25 = 1,011,322.75
I rounded down to the nearest complete day and there have been 1,011,322 days since the founding of Rome as of today, March 11, 2017.
I looked at the one million plus result and thought that there should be more days than that. In this day and age when we use large numerical figures to count and compare things and events, 1,000,000 seems like a paltry number. If somebody would have asked me yesterday to guess how many days it has been since the founding of Rome, I would have approximated a much higher number than one million.
This number problem made me aware again that our perception of time is a very subjective thing. When I was a little boy, a month seemed to last a very long time. The three months of summer vacation were deliciously long lasting. During my teens as a high schooler, the three months of vacation slipped by more quickly. As a young adult, my perception of time compressed ever more rapidly with each passing year. Now, in my 60s, a year now seems almost the same as the three months of boyhood time.
Where did the decades go? My recollection of past major events that happened only ten years ago is time warped, too. My use of the word “only” in describing a decade of my life would seem absurd to an eight-year-old me. Most adults I know say they have similar perceptions.
Even though we measure time objectively with mechanical and electronic clocks and calendars, we keep track of subjective time by some sort of biological, internal clock. Unlike the watch on your wrist, this internal clock is governed by our emotions and states of mind.
Researchers have been looking into this subject and have discovered some of the nuts and bolts about our mental processes around time passage. I won’t reiterate that here. I’m more interested in the events the brain uses to alter the awareness of time passage.
There is that old adage, “A watched pot never boils.” I was skeptical of this statement at an early age. When I was old enough to use the kitchen range (with parental permission), I prepared my own “Coco Wheats” hot cereal. Because I was eager to eat breakfast, I watched the pan of water as it became hotter. I discovered that the watched pot actually did come to a boil. Even today, I’m still so fascinated by the process of bringing water to a boil, that I like to watch each stage as it happens.
More to the point is treadmill time. There are few routine activities that stretch time perception than running or speed walking on a mechanical treadmill. One minute of exercise on a treadmill often seems more like five minutes of actual time. Furthermore, the longer I’m on the machine, the slower time goes. If there is no TV in the gym or I forget my personal music, time on the treadmill drags by slowly. Even if I’m distracted by entertainment, the time on the treadmill feels much slower than when I am enjoying enertainment away from the gym.
These experiences affirm to me that personal subjective time perception is algorithmic and not a simple progression of data. Time appears to pass much more quickly when I’m not paying attention to what I’m doing. Time passes more slowly when I’m being mindful of my task. If you are a meditator, you know what it means when I say that meditation makes time pass very slowly.
Perhaps this is why old gurus and sages tell us to savor each moment as if it is our last. They have learned how not to get bored with mindfulness. Even if they slip into boredom, they become mindful and contemplate the state of being bored.
The act of being mindful whenever possible might be the secret of living a long life. The life may seem longer. I wonder if the thoughtful mental state could cause a longer actual life.
Maybe researchers are looking into that.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes attorney Kilroy J. Oldster. “Awareness of our lost youth and charged with foreknowledge of our fate is terribly burdensome. Nonetheless, awareness of inexorable forward march of time and comprehension of our transience is a key component of our humanness.”