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Back in 2014, the year before I quit my job to travel the world, there was only one picture on my phone I’d taken that whole year, and this was it:
This was a bacon latte I had at a board game café in Toronto, on a rare weekend where I wasn’t working overtime or writing my first novel, finally spending time with friends. It wasn’t the best latte I’d ever had, but as far as interesting things happening in my life, this strange, confusing concoction (meat and coffee, together at last!) was it.
Life was a blur back then, filled with e-mails, meetings, anti-depressants, sleeping pills, and waking up at 3 AM in the morning, stressing about my job getting outsourced.
Little did I know, in just a year’s time, my camera would be filled with so many memories I’d run out of room on my smart phone to capture them all.
We seemed to experience time completely differently once Wanderer and I retired. Life was no longer a blur. Instead, every day was captured in my mind in perfect clarity. Strangely, while the hours in each individual day flew by because we were having a blast, I still felt like I was living multiple lifetimes.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on how to explain this phenomenon until recently. After watching Season 3 Episode 12 of the “Explained” series on Netflix about “Time”, I finally get it.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, let me give you a brief overview. The episode seeks to explain why when you’re a kid, it feels like a year lasts forever. When you’re teen, a summer seems like a life time, and when you’re in your 20s, time stretches on and on. But as you get into your 30s, 40s, and beyond, time goes faster and faster. As journalist Andy Rooney puts it “life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer it gets to the end, the faster it goes.”
As it turns out, this phenomenon is mostly emotional, not biological. And they proved this with an experiment:
Back in 1972, a 23-year-old French scientist named Michel Siffre climbed into a cave in Texas to live in complete isolation for 2 whole months. Why did he voluntarily choose to subject himself to solitary confinement, a technique used to torture prisoners? I have no idea. Scientists are weird.
Anyways, Siffre wanted to see if, without external stimuli like sunlight, clocks, phones, or TVs, will his body still be able to tell time?
Via a two-way radio, he called his colleagues up at the surface every time he fell asleep and woke up. They discovered that sometimes he would be awake for 23 hours straight. Sometimes only 6. But on average, his sleep cycle continued to revolve around a 24-hour clock. Even without outside cues, his body kept track internally and knew when to fall sleep and when to wake up. Turns out there’s an evolutionary reason for this. Our cells need to divide and repair themselves when the sun is down to avoid damage from UV light, so every cell has a biological clock that keeps track of each 24-hour day. This system, developed over millions of years, is called our Circadian Rhythm (“circa” meaning “approximate” and “dian” meaning “day”).
But, what’s even more interesting is that even though Michel’s body knew when to sleep and wake up, his sense of time in terms of days of the month became distorted. Since every day was the same and few memories were stored during this time, his brain thought only 1 month had passed when, in reality, he had been in the cave for 2 whole months.
When you’re bored, sad, depressed, or stressed, time FEELS slower. We all experienced this effect during the pandemic. One of the researchers in the episode explained that being home with her 2 kids made the pandemic drag and she wanted to find out whether this was the case for other people. And of the test subjects they interviewed, 40% said time seemed to slow down during the pandemic, 40% said it sped up, and 20% said it didn’t change from before the pandemic. This led her to conclude that unlike our Circadian Rhythm that steadily keeps track of our sleep and waking hours, our overall sense of time over weeks, months, and years is distorted by our EMOTIONS.
So in other words, “we have the power to speed it up or slow it down depending on how we choose to spend it.” –Creators of “Explained“.
The more memories we accumulate, the longer our lives seem to last. Which explains why childhood feels like it lasted the longest. Because children notice everything and are constantly learning new skills, socializing and having fun, their brains are constantly generating new memories and as a result, that time feels stretched out. As we get older, busier, and settle into routines, we forget to live in the moment. We rush through life, stop making new memories, and as a result we feel it pass us by more quickly.
It also explains why, for many people, each day seemed to drag on during the pandemic, but the year flew by. When we’re happy socializing, time passes faster because we aren’t counting down the minutes. But it also creates landmarks in our memories, making us notice our lives more and feel more satisfied. Lockdowns took all of that away, leaving us with days that just blend into each other, without celebrations to remember them by.
Researchers also discovered that it isn’t about how many people you spend time with. It’s about social satisfaction. Even if you have few friends but better social interactions with them, you will feel socially satisfied. “The more socially satisfied you are, the more likely you will experience time passing quickly during lockdown.” —Creators of “Explained“. And even though your days pass faster, your life seems longer because there are more memories to capture in your mind.
Thus, the best way to live a long life is through altering our perceptions of time. To stretch out the years with social satisfaction, lifelong learning, and memories that make us feel like we’ve lived multiple lifetimes.
This is why buying freedom is the best money I’ve ever spent. Ever since I bought back my time by becoming financially independent, the days feel shorter but life in general feels longer. When I was stressed and working, days dragged on (I was constantly checking my watch to see when I could go home) but the years whizzed by without my noticing.
Since retiring, I’ve found it much easier to stay present and to find like-minded people who give me social satisfaction. That’s why my experience of time has now flipped. The days are short but the years are long. I’ve essentially reverted to childhood (except with more money and less beatings). It’s the opposite of my previous life of workdays being long and years being short.
What do you think? Did your perception of time change during the pandemic? Do you think becoming FI changes how we view life?
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