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Can We Slow Down Time?

Daydreams and flying time are kissing cousins....

Mathew*, a twenty year old college student, Terri*, a thirty-three year old who works in finance, and Pete*, a fifty-nine year old granddad, might not have much to talk about. But they have at least one thing in common: they all feel that the days, weeks and months are speeding by too quickly. “I barely have time to breathe,” says Terri. Mathew echoes, “I can’t seem to find a minute just to think.”

The theory that I have always heard (and one underscored by scientists like neuroscientist David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine and Warren Meck, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University) is that, for a number of reasons, time seems to go faster as we get older. But these days it’s not just the over-forties who are complaining. Speeding time seems to be afflicting us all, from small children to folks in their mid-nineties! 

It seems that life is moving too quickly. There are plenty of theories to explain the problem – some blame the internet, some the recession, some the political climate, some, as in a piece on NPR the pace of life, and some the programming of our brains But there is even another, less obvious reason that we feel life is speeding by: the gap between our daydreams and the reality of our lives.

In the New York Times, Todd G. Buchholz and Victoria Buchholz write that the American dream that children will be more successful than their parents, has “been turned on its head” by a combination of the downturn in the global economy and the rise of online social networking. They cite Harvard researcher John Della Volpe, who “reports that young people want to stay more connected with their hometowns,” even when it means that they cannot pursue their dreams for the future. Says Della Volpe, “I spoke with a kid from Columbus, Ohio, who dreamed of being a high school teacher. When he found out he’d have to move to Arizona or the Sunbelt, he took a job in a Columbus tire factory.”

The problem for these youngsters, however, may not actually be their failure to make a physical move as much as it is a fear that following their dreams will not lead them to a more satisfying life. Many of them look at the adults in their lives and think, “What is the point?” They see members of the older generation, some of whom have even lived out the daydreams of their youth, who are still not content. For example, many of these young people know from first hand observation of their parents that a young girl’s daydream of a story book romance and picture perfect wedding is not a prescription for living happily ever after. And then there are the findings that money, in fact, does not  buy happiness – for example, one study has found that people making more than $100,000 a year were often much less satisfied than people making under $40,000.

So what can we do about flying time? Pay more attention to our daydreams! Obviously, we can’t slow down reality; but we can make the minutes feel richer and the hours less pressured. According to neuropsychologists, our brains are wired not only to recognize increments of time but also to have a certain kind of elasticity around how long any particular experience seems to last. If we can recognize that all daydreams do not have to come true, we can also spend more time on the here and now. And thi will help make the quickly speeding days feel more manageable. Here are six simple suggestions for doing just that.

1. Enjoy your daydreams, and use them to guide your life when and where you can (I’ve written about this in my book, in several articles, and in several recent posts.) But remind yourself that fulfilling those dreams is not necessarily the road to happiness.

2. Be realistic about the goals you set for each day. You may daydream about a perfect life; but if your expectations are not based in reality, you will always feel disappointed.
For example, if you’re a mom or dad with a job outside the home, you have an overload of responsibilities almost by definition: maybe today you have to get one kid to school and another to the doctor, accomplish umpteen tasks for work, get to a soccer game and oversee homework, and oh yes, you need a haircut and some exercise…and when did you think you were going to start that diet? Can you really cut something out? It may seem impossible, but look hard. There may be a couple of things you can pass off to someone else; one or two things that can wait for another day; and something that simply does not ever have to be done (maybe cleaning out the mess under the sink? Can it wait till your kids go to college?) Whatever tasks you choose, try to let them go with a breath of air, and then release yourself from guilt. An unaccomplished goal in this day and age may actually be a success story!

3. Whatever your long term hopes, try to be fully present in every moment as you live it. I know this one is much easier said than done, but here’s an example of what I mean. Shortly after my son was born, it became clear that I could not have more children, so I wanted to make the most of every possible minute with him. (Especially because everyone warned me that he would be off to college in the blink of an eye.) I had to work for financial reasons, but also because I love my profession, so I was never a full-time at home mom. But rather than berate myself for my time away, I focused on appreciating my moments with him as much as possible. That did not mean I loved the screaming tantrums of the terrible threes (we somehow missed the terrible twos), the sometimes mind-numbing games we played seven thousand times in a row, or the frustrating arguments over homework and curfews;  but I tried to accept these experiences as part of the package. And now that the college years have passed in yet another blink, it is, I think, much easier to enjoy where we are now than it would have been if I had spent that time worrying about all the things I was not doing, and everything else that I was doing wrong.

4. Breathe. It may seem hackneyed, but truly, the practice of taking four deep, rhythmic breaths in a row can help you slow down physically and mentally. And slowing our bodies down, relaxing our muscles and our brains, is a sure-fire way to slow down the passage time.

5. Take care of yourself.  I know I’ve said this before, but I’ll repeat it because it’s important: the idea of putting on your own oxygen mask before you help someone else is a valuable metaphor for life. It is a way of ensuring that you will be there for whoever and whatever needs you. Taking care of yourself can be relatively simple, once you put it in place. Eat healthily, not too much or too little. Get a little exercise, and enough sleep, or, if you cannot sleep, at least make sure you rest at night. If you drink alcohol, do it in moderation. Get psychological support, whether from friends, family or professionals. Keep your mind active. The list goes on, but you get the idea, right?

6. Connect with other people in whatever ways that you can. Talking is good, in fact, very important. But it’s not the only way to bond.  In a poignant essay in More Magazine, Diane Ackerman  writes of a change in her life after her husband had a stroke and could no longer communicate in words. She writes, “I needed to find a way for us to communicate again, wordlessly, in part to offset the strain all the care giving added to my busy life.” It took time, she says, but eventually they found it together. Part of that process involved physical contact. She says, “One morning I began a custom that eased the fabric of our lives…I start the day with cuddling, snogging and generally being slow and cozy together for 30 to 45 minutes before work.”   Ackerman says this ritual has become so important that she will set her alarm early to have time for it even on days when she has an early morning appointment.

*names and identifying information changed for privacy and confidentiality

                                                                                                                                F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W. in Off the Couch


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