Time flies when you’re having fun (and can stretch out when you’re stressed)

I handed in my last uni assignment at 4:57 when it was due at 5pm. I felt super stressed out and those last few minutes right before the deadline felt like they stretched out forever. I finished off the conclusion at 4:52, proofread it at 4:53, clicked save at 4:56 and hit send at 4:57pm. Somehow I managed to cram a lot of work into just a few minutes.

At other times, I set out to watch just one little YouTube video and the next thing I know, it’s two and half hours later and I’ve gone down a massive YouTube spiral, completely losing track of time.

It always seemed odd to me that time feels like it can pass at different paces, depending on what we’re doing and how we’re feeling. This is all to do with our subjective perception of time, which is different from actual clock time.

(Image by Alan Cleaver from Flickr)

Just like in my experience of writing uni assignments, stressful situations can distort our perceptions of time. In a recent study, people were more likely to think time passed slower than actual clock time after researchers exposed them to a stressful situation. They had 2 minutes to prepare a speech and then deliver it straight to a camera. Before and after the stressful speech activity, the participants watched images flash on a computer screen for different lengths of time. They then needed to recreate the amount of time they believed the images appeared for. Unsurprisingly, they thought the images flashed for longer than was actually the case after they’d been stressed out. When we believe time is taking longer than it actually is, this phenomenon is called time dilation.

According to one theory, we judge moments filled with lots of mental work as passing more slowly because our brains need to process more information in that amount of time. So when you drive to a new place, the trip there tends to feel longer than the drive back, because your brain puts more effort into navigation on the way up compared with the ride back.

Another theory says that if you’re not really paying attention to the passage of time, your brain perceives it as passing quicker. So when you’re feeling happy and enjoying what you’re doing, time flies by (e.g. if you’re absorbed in a lively conversation with your mates at a bar).

But if you’re actively focusing on what time it is, say you’re really bored, then that extra attention to the time makes your brain think it’s taking longer. It’s just like the classic kid in the backseat on a long car trip whining “are we there yet?” a million times over.

So even though a minute will always equal exactly 60 seconds, time can sometimes feel longer or shorter based on how you’re feeling and what you’re doing.