The Anderson Institute Logo 
   Where history is becoming an experimental science      
Innovation and Excellence in Time Technology The Official Site of the World Encyclopedia of Time, the Time Shop, and the Time Research Association.    
  Home  |  About Us  |  Educational Resources  |  Encyclopedia  |  The Time Shop  |  Time Research Association  |  Contact Us

A Psychologist's View of Time

Many different people have dedicated their lives to the study of psychology, even before it became its own specialized field of study. Though the makeup and focus of the field has evolved over the years, psychology can now be defined as the study of behavior and mental processes, or simply put, how we think about things. How do we think about time, and how does it affect how we act and how we interact with our world? Time, is one of the few things that is both limited and irreversible. It is also something that we think about often, sometimes without meaning to or even recognizing that we are doing so. People like Jean Piaget and Carl Jung have been noted for attempting to sort through the mess of problems and perplexing situations that can be associated with how we perceive time. Personality and age may be two of the reasons that quickly come to mind when we are faced with differing perceptions of time. But why isn’t time simply absolute to begin with? The young and the old tend to have a very different sense of the value of time or how time should be spent, perhaps due to life altering crises that occur in midlife. The earth doesn’t change its speed for every person that walks upon it; rather it is our minds that give us the sense that it does. Sometimes it is a person’s age that leads them toward religion, which can color the way that we view life now, as well as what might come in the time after death. The human mind is what allows us to communicate with and think about the world around us, so it only makes sense that the study of the mind—namely psychology—would be highly concerned with another important force on earth: time.

Time For the Truth About Truth

Religion is about transformation; by ritual and ethical practice we become fundamentally different. Religion is not about preparing for the beatific vision in Heaven; it is also about living a fully human life in this world… Like any other religious truth, immortality must become a present reality. It is liberation from the constraints of time and space, and from the limitations of our narrow horizons. It involves a profound realization that the deepest core of our being is inseparable from what has been called God, nirvana, Brahman, or the Dao. … Immortality is not a matter of waiting for the next life, but in perfecting our humanity here and now. – Karen Armstrong, Harvard Divinity School

All religions hold some form of doctrine concerning life after death. The concept of the immortal soul is described by Hindu and Jain doctrine as the divine Self, by Buddhism as “the product of conditions and causes,” and by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the core of the individual person (World Scripture). Though the name given to this state of being varies between religions, to all of them it is an essential part of the understanding of what is to come. In no religious doctrine does the soul ever die—it is universally considered to be what carries us forth into what comes next, however that may be imagined.

In addition to the unanimity concerning the idea of an eternal soul, all religions are also in agreement on the point that belief in a life after death is not limited to comforting or relieving those who are having a hard time living now. The main purpose of a belief in the afterlife is to help people realize the importance of the time that that they have on earth. A Nupe – who are an ethnicity now living primarily in Nigeria –Proverb from an African Traditional Religion states, “You can climb up the mountain and down again; you can stroll around the valley and return; but you cannot go to God and return” (World Scripture). This illustrates the same idea that everyone only has one life to live, and we should strive to experience it to the best of our ability while there is a chance—while we still have time. Regrets are perhaps the worst things to have, for time can never be rewound.

No religion attempts to claim a definite, geographical location for where the afterlife is going to take place. On the other hand, all religions assert that at the time right after death, the individual undergoes a period of judgment, a summary of his or her life analyzed with total honesty. After this point, however, each religion takes a slightly different path toward explaining the next step. In Christianity, the soul is sometimes considered to join with the cosmos, while in Hinduism there is the possibility of rebirth on earth; what you become depends upon how good you were—what your karma was—the first time around.

The Amish, due to their faith, have developed a somewhat cloistered lifestyle that has almost taken them out of the hands of time completely – at least as far as what is economic, technological, and social progress is concerned. There are over twenty Amish groups, including the Mennonites and the Brethren, who live in Lancaster and Dutch County, Pennsylvania. Horse drawn carriages and plain black and white clothing are common. Among the more strict groups, electricity of all kinds—phones, televisions, radios, and automobiles—are forbidden. These worldly goods are viewed as potential threats to the close relationship with God they covet, which is achieved by following his word quite literally and abstaining from anything that might lead them astray. The result is a closely-knit, private, rural community of people who have seemingly been passed over by time; hardly anything has changed in the last two hundred years—not even the one room school house.

Considering all of the many different religious establishments there are, what exactly is supposed to be encompassed by the term “all religions” used earlier? It is a far too common misconception that “all religions” are hopelessly incompatible. Quite to the contrary, religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism Taoism, Confucianism, Jainism, Sihkism, and various African Tribal Religions not only tend to have the same origins, but also preach virtually identical truths, including those concerning how we should spend our time on earth and what might happen in the time to come. Perhaps it is the passing of time itself that has caused the development of cultural differences, racial discrimination, the quest for political power, and doctrinal disputes, which have in turn led to rifts between these otherwise kindred groups. It is interesting to wonder how much more time will be needed before such superficial quarreling will collapse in the face of the underlying, uniting qualities which are already present in us all.

The Golden rule became central to all the great traditions, not simply because it sounded good, but also because people found that it worked. It compelled them to "step outside" themselves, and this brought them intimations of immortality. The practice of the Golden Rule, according to Confucius, would not bring practitioners to a place, such as Heaven, but to a state of transcendent goodness, which he called ren, the characteristic of a fully mature human being. Ren, which later philosophers would define as benevolence, was difficult because it required the eradication of vanity, resentment, and the desire to dominate others. It was a lifelong struggle that would end only at death. Confucius, as we have seen, did not encourage his students to speculate about what lay at the end of the Way of ren. You were not going to a place, like Heaven, or to a personal God. Walking along this path was itself a transcendent and dynamic experience, an end in itself. – Karen Armstrong, Harvard Divinity School

Age Effects our Perception of Time

"Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."
Satchel Paige

Age is one of the subjects that always seems to be on people’s minds. Saying things like “I wish I could do it all again!” or “If I only knew then what I know now!” or “I’m not as young as I used to be!” all indicate a sense of longing for youth, or a sense of nostalgic remembrance of a time long gone. People often don’t want others to know how old they are. Some try to reverse the aging process through excessive use of cosmetics, wearing the “newest thing,” or even indulging in plastic surgery. Lots of people turn to religion when they’re older, hoping for a sense of peace or some serene understanding of the aging process. Why does time have such a significant impact on the way that we think, especially as we grow older? Could it be, perhaps, because we begin to realize that the amount of time we have is limited? Surely living within the time constraints of birth and death gives us our own varying perspective on how that time—our lives—should be spent.

“For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away,
The sky is filled with stars invisible by day.”
-H.W. Longfellow “Morituri Salutamus,” 1875

Maybe there is some logic behind the mad rush for more of everything that seems to consume us as we get older. During an individual’s youth, the world seems as though it is lying at his feet with all of his options spread out before him. The youth may even feel as if he has an endless supply of time available to attain these goals. As life moves on and he grows older, a sense of worry tends to develop as these aspirations seem to demand more time than he finds he has to give. This leads to what has often been called a midlife crisis. Originally suggested by Carl Jung, who is also famous for his work with personality types, the midlife crisis generally hits people in their forties, give or take a decade. Despite their negative nature, midlife crises are a normal part of maturing, as are counseling and major-life-changes (Team). Though midlife crises are a natural process that are usually brought on when we become bored or discontent with our lives, they can also be brought on by external variables. Incurring debt or losing a loved one can make us begin questioning our life’s direction and purpose—the same behavior that characterizes a midlife crisis.

The fact that we begin to get psychologically confused about our identity and we sense that time is moving faster than it used to, may not be totally a product of our imagination. At age ten, a year is 10% of your life. Summer vacations can seem to last forever. At age fifty, a year shrinks to a mere 2% of one’s entire life span. At that age, summers tend to feel shorter. The recurring cycles of the seasons can blur together, making the passing of time from one to the other less distinctive and harder to remember. Therefore, time seems to pass more quickly as we get older. A particular amount of time—such as a year—may seem as though it is actually moving faster because it is worth less in comparison to a whole lifespan.

“Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.”
-Samuel Ullman

Would Juan Ponce de Leon have made use of plastic surgery if he were alive today? He sailed with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas in 1493, but instead of returning to Spain with Columbus, Leon stayed in what is now the Dominican Republic. He later became the first European to reach Florida in 1513. He was searching for, among other things, the legendary fountain of youth. He is not the only one who has ever had a preoccupation with staying, or once again becoming, young. Since the time when a mythical water fountain was ones best hope, we have made significant advances in the art of cosmetic surgery, which allows individuals to alter various parts of their body to their own personal satisfaction—with plenty of associated costs and risks. People can have surgery to help lose weight, tuck a tummy, lift an arm, or remove hair, spider veins, or tattoos. Women can have breast lifts and breast reductions, and men can have pectoral implants. There does not seem to be a part of the face that can’t be changed: eyelid surgery, brow lifts, chin and cheek implants, face lifts, nose jobs, ear surgery, lip augmentation, various kinds of skin care (technically, even things like sunscreen) and permanent make-up are all options. The most obvious attempts at age reversal are those procedures associated with wrinkle reduction or removal, such as botox, collagen, dermabrasion, and thermage. These are simply slightly different means to the same end –people want to look like they did when they were twenty. Though these techniques originated from procedures initially performed on soldiers with war injuries or babies with birth defects, there is a widespread shift in their use to often needless and excessive self-improvement.

How old is old, anyway? Old age is not a disease, by any stretch of the imagination. More often than not, it is defined by the standards of society, rather than any sort of physiological problem. Normally hearing starts to disintegrate when a person reaches his mid-forties, while smell doesn’t usually worsen until one is in their seventies. Some fortunate individuals progress into their later years with no noticeable loss in any of their five senses. Contrary to public belief, there are no clinically recognized changes that occur in a person when he reaches sixty-five, further emphasizing the effect society has on the mindset of the masses. Why should everyone retire at that age? Along with physical ailments and worry, age is said to bring wisdom. Though certainly not all youth are ignorant and not all aged are wise, the added benefit of experience makes old age a time for teaching. It also leads to a stronger sense of nostalgia—a word stemming from the Greek roots nostos (returning home) and algos (pain or longing). The term, which once stood for a fear of never seeing ones homeland again, is more often used now to reflect a sense of remembrance. Looking back and being able to remember and laugh about all of things that have happened—even the not-so-great ones—is one of features inherent in the ever exciting process of growing older.

100 Years
By: Five for Fighting, 2004
I’m fifteen for a moment … … … Caught in between ten and twenty
And I’m just dreaming … … … Counting the ways to where you are

I’m twenty-two for a moment … She feels better than ever
And we’re on fire … Making our way back from Mars

Fifteen there’s still time for you
Time to buy and time to lose
Fifteen, there’s never a wish better than this
When you only got a hundred years to live

I’m thirty-three for a moment … Still the man but you see I’m a “they.”
A kid on the way, babe … A family on my mind

I’m forty-five for a moment … The sea is high
And I’m heading through a crisis … Chasing the years of my life

Fifteen there’s still time for you
Time to buy and time to lose yourself
Within a morning star

Fifteen I’m all right with you
Fifteen, there’s never a wish better than this
When you only got a hundred years to live

Half time goes by … Suddenly you’re wise
Another blink of an eye … Sixty-seven is gone
The sun is getting high … We’re moving on

I’m ninety-nine for a moment … Dying just for another moment
And I’m just dreaming … Counting the ways to wear you are

Fifteen, there’s still time for you … Twenty-two I feel her too
Thirty-three you’re on your way … Everyday is a new day

Fifteen, there’s still time for you
Time to buy and time to choose
Hey, fifteen, there’s never a wish better than this
When you only got a hundred years to live

The Clock in our Heads: Famous psychologists’ view of time

It is important to remember that measured time is not absolute, simply because it can be recorded. The way that individuals interpret time has a large impact on how they relate to it, and therefore the study of psychology can have a direct impact on the study of time. Sometimes, time seems to be moving fast, -but is this quick pace only relative to the observer, or does the rate of time’s passing ever actually change? A person’s personality has a lot to do with the way they perceive things, including the way they perceive time. Many different variables can be traced back to perception—one of the main components in the study of psychology. These variables play an important role in determining the impact of time in our lives. Many psychologists have acknowledged this fact, and have attempted to explain how these things affect daily life by using some of the theories and observations described below.

The phrase “time flies when you’re having fun” is a common one. Children and adults alike quote it when they come to feel as though workdays last forever while their precious little free time slips away so quickly. Jean Piaget explained this phenomena as the sensation of “lived” time—the notion that different people will interpret time in different ways. Despite the fact that when ten minutes has passed according to the clock, that same ten minutes may seem like an hour to someone waiting for an important phone call. Likewise, that same time ten minutes may feel like a fleeting second to someone enjoying a game of tennis. Seconds seem to last forever for someone waiting for the countdown on a microwave, while they go by quickly for a person on a rollercoaster. A certain timed interval does not always feel as though it encompasses an equivalent span of existence in ones life. That is, we don’t always feel like we are getting an hour's worth of living out of each and every clocked hour. Instead, the span of time experienced depends greatly on the activity that the individual is engaging in. Sometimes it can be difficult for us to grasp that it is merely the mind that creates the illusion of slower or faster time.

Although not based on the ideas of a psychologist, Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity supports the idea that time is, as the name suggests, relative to the person experiencing it. Therefore, his theories also have roots in psychology. The following is an interesting observation derived from one of his theories. “If two clocks are separated by a large distance…some [observers] will say the clocks indicate the same time, [while] others will say one clock is ahead of the other…Also, different observers will disagree about whether the clocks are running normally, or faster, or slower than normal. But all will agree that the two clocks are running at the same speed” (GM Arts). This indicates that people know that time has a regular pace, but also realize that this doesn’t prevent them from holding different views and opinions about that pace. Two clocks will be observed as maintaining the same speed, but one person will say the that speed the clocks are running on is “fast” while another will say that it is “slow.” It is almost natural to change such phrases to “relatively fast” or “relatively slow.” Such tendencies indicate that people are at least partially aware that the mind has as much of an impact on time as natural forces such as gravity do.

Personality also plays a role in perception. Since time, to a certain degree, is a matter of perception, it follows that our personality must have an influence on our personal time. Personalities are commonly split into type A and type B. Type A personalities tend to be under stress constantly, worry about the speed at which they are accomplishing things, always check their watches, show up early for appointments, and feel rushed. They also tend to show signs of impatience, hostility, and perfectionism. These traits, lending to a feeling that there is never enough time, can eventually cause heart disease and possibly even stroke if they become too extreme. Type B personalities, on the other hand, are more laid back and philosophical, and tend to take life one day at a time, rather than constantly planning and living in the future. Some people can be a mix of both A and B type personalities, depending on the situation they’re in. Not sure which one you are? You can take a quiz and find out (external link).

Most psychologists would agree that the mind plays an important role in how we view the world and its many, complex components. Personality and perception are two of the most direct ways that the mind allows us to do this. Since time is a major part of our life on earth, and since those two aspects of psychology are major parts of how we are able to experience that life, it is only natural that our personality and perception work together to influence our interpretation of time.