Time Flies When You’re Having Fun

Time and Memory

It is a commonly held belief that time appears to move faster when we are enjoying ourselves. Of course, the way in which we measure time; seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks and so on, are a human interpretation of time based on the movement of the Earth around the sun and never actually speeds up or slows down. And yet, the popular phrase ‘time flies when you’re having fun’ is often used in conversation and something we can also experience. Or seem to experience. There is always a reason for an expression and this one is no different. Our perception of time really does change according to what we are doing.


On the flip side of the quote which began this blog, when you are doing something boring, time seems to drag. Waiting for something like medical test results can make days feel like weeks. Boring tasks at work take longer than they ever should. That said, often people find that their time allowance for school exams and tests goes faster than ever before. There seems to be no ‘right’ speed for time to move, ironic since it was humans who decided to split moments into rigid intervals thousands of years ago. Those seven hours in the office, for example, will always move more slowly than that one hour you get for lunch in the middle of the day.


What it comes down to, in fact, is the human brain and the way we perceive time. Our brains are an incredible muscle and something scientists and doctors still struggle to understand. But when it comes to the way we think about and remember time, research published in 2003 sheds some light on this area. Titled Routine and the Perception of Time, D. Avni-Babad and I. Ritov offered the following conclusion. The busier and more stimulated our brains are, the faster we retrospectively think time has travelled. However, as we move further away from the event, our memories of the time strengthen whereas thoughts of those long hours where time appeared to stand still fade away.


When we are doing something fun or engaging, we are distracted from the ticking of a clock or checking our phones because we are stimulated and interested in what we are doing. Time passes at a normal rate, of course, but when we look at the clock eventually, we’re surprised how late it has gotten. And so follows that popular turn of phrase. In contrast however, when we are required to do something we find boring (or must simply wait), we are far more likely to regularly check the time and become acutely aware of how it is moving. Because we spend more time thinking about time, it appears to pass more slowly.


Our sense of time is also warped in our memories. While, in the moment, we may think that time has moved incredibly fast (holidays are never long enough, Sunday nights come too soon, birthdays are over in the blink of an eye), when we look back on those seemingly short days, we have many happy memories. On the other hand, weeks of studying for exams, days spent in the hospital, hours endured waiting at an airport, become fuzzy, blurred and indistinct. Those experiences which fail to stimulate certain parts of our brain are, over time, forgotten. In the moment, however, they may appear never-ending.


Once again it amazes me to discover more about how our brains not only process information at the time but also impact how we remember our life in years to come. I studied for two months leading up to my high school exams but I don’t remember sitting at my desk, pouring over my text books (nor much of the content of those books). A weekend in Dublin I enjoyed with some friends from university two years later, however, is filled with vibrant memories, even if some of them may or may not have involved Guinness.


So yes, time does seem to move faster when you’re having fun but rest assured that your brain is taking careful note of all your fun escapades and storing them away so you can look back fondly on those memories for years to come.


Go. Do. Experience. More Good Deeds.