I turn 25 this year.
25 is a birthday that’s like getting clubbed across the face with a reality stick. It’s about as pleasant as a cold plunge – except instead of a post-cold endorphin high – you’re left with a gnawing sense of helplessness. You can feel time slipping away.
Well despite this opening, this is an essay about happiness (I promise, we’ll get there).
More accurately, it’s about the urgency of happiness. It’s about living your life fully. Because, I’ve got bad news: your life is closer to its end than you think.
I’ll explain the distinction between real and perceived time, a theory of relative time, and what this means for your life.
Time: Perception vs. Reality
The older I get, the faster time goes.
This is probably the most terrifying part of life that I have yet to come to terms with. Many drunken confessionals with old friends and even philosophical chats with Zen monks have confirmed that I’m not alone in this observation.
As a kid it felt like summer stretched out in a beginningless and endless haze. It was a lifetime within itself. A week felt like a week. And a month was a sizeable unit of time.
Now I’m 24. A week feels like a day. A month is my minimum planning unit – anything less goes by too fast. And a year still feels like awhile. But then it seems like every other week I realize it’s been years since xyz life event: 1 year since college graduation, 2 years since COVID, 6 years since high school graduation (sidebar: it seems HS graduation was when, in terms of time perception, everything stopped making sense).
If you’re willing to confront the unsettling implications, you’ll have to admit this time perception pattern is true. I once heard it explained as putting pennies in the hand. You feel the first few. Then each one becomes less and less significant.
This is the difference between perception of time and real time. Real time treats every unit as a fixed entity. A second is a second and a minute is a minute. But if you’ve ever ran sprints, taken a cold shower, or gone on a long drive – you know it’s possible to slow down time. Simultaneously, if you’ve played video games, gone to a theme park, or made love you know that sometimes minutes and hours can pass in a flash.
So it seems while “real time” is fixed. Our perception of time is malleable. And it’s speeding up at an ever increasing rate. It’s almost like some psychological thriller where you’re trapped on a train with a stuck throttle.
It keeps going faster and faster and faster - all you can do is hold on.
Theory: Welcome to the 3rd Quarter
If you’re still with me then I admire your courage and your tolerance for existential distress.
Buckle up, because you’re not going to like what I’m about to tell you.
Now I – like other folks who write unsolicited essays on the internet – am basing this on rigorous, firsthand scientific research in the form of about 45 minutes on Wikipedia.
But 45 minutes was more than enough time to scare the shit out of myself – and confirm much of this anecdotal experience with time perception.
“Psychologists have found that the subjective perception of the passing of time tends to speed up with increasing age in humans. This often causes people to increasingly underestimate a given interval of time as they age.” (There are multiple academic references for this at the link above.)
One theory is fairly similar to my “pennies in the hand” metaphor. It suggests that the subjective experience of time is inversely proportional to real time.
“One day would be approximately 1/4,000 of the life of an 11-year-old, but approximately 1/20,000 of the life of a 55-year-old. This helps to explain why a random, ordinary day may therefore appear longer for a young child than an adult. So a year would be experienced by a 55-year-old as passing approximately 5 times more quickly than a year experienced by an 11-year-old.”
Under this quantitative theory, the following age ranges in life would be experienced as about equal: 5–10, 10–20, 20–40, 40–80, as the end age is twice the start age. The first range (5-10), 5 years if half of your lived life. In the second range (10-20), 10 years is half of your lived life. This pattern continues – so in each case you subjectively experience one half of your lived life.
If I reflect on my life from 10-20 and from 20-25, I (unfortunately) don’t think it’s too extreme to say time is moving twice as fast. 4 years of high school felt like an entire lifetime – 4 years of college was more like a long season.
Let’s say this model is *approximately* true.
We can view it through the lens of a football game.
Age 21 – Start of the 3rd Quarter (14:15 on the clock)
Age 25 – 11:15 left in the 3rd Quarter
Age 30 – 7:30 left in the 3rd Quarter
Age 35 – 3:45 left in the 3rd Quarter
Age 40 – Start of the 4th Quarter
Age 55 – 9:23 left in the 4th Quarter
Age 65 – 5:38 left in the 4th Quarter (In case you’re thinking about retirement then.)
Surprise, you’re already in the 3rd quarter.
Come college graduation you’ve got about 13 minutes left in the 3rd quarter. By the time your mid-thirties come around you’re getting down to the 4th. And – if you subscribe to our traditional life narrative of busting your ass on a job you don’t much like in order to earn a great retirement – then enjoy your 5 minutes.
What’s the point?
Consider this essay the happiness version of scared straight.
When I realized I was well into the 3rd quarter I felt the stomach-turning rush of cortisol that used to accompany being called down to the principal’s office.
Insight feels that way sometimes. But you can make this insight a powerful, physically embodied message:
DON’T WAIT. THIS IS IT.
When it comes to living your life – there’s no time to f—k around. The clock is ticking – and it’s ticking at an ever increasing rate.
Contemplate this. Let the reality of it jar your mind and penetrate your bones.
This is actually the seed of wisdom. To live with this level of awareness – this intention and appreciation – is the essence of a spiritual life. Let this realization scare you into living life fully - into remembering what really matters. Let it generate a sense of urgency to prioritize your happiness.
Take that trip with old friends you’ve been talking about, ditch work to give your mom or dad a call, read a good book, tell someone you love them, or maybe take a few days (or weeks) off to enjoy some unproductive nothingness.
You’re probably already in the 3rd quarter…
Make sure you’re living like it.
A little jarring but great stuff.
This was very good