Why do some people find it hard to adjust to the apparent increase of speed in so many areas in life? Does that happen everywhere – or is it just in the developed western world where time seems to rush by?
Sociologists and psychologists can help us understand our perception of time – and how different people have differing views.
1. Technical advances give us higher expectations
Hartmut Rosa, a German sociologist, describes how progress may not always save us time as we’d expect.
It’s far quicker to send a text message or email than to send a letter. But that speed encourages us to send more messages – and that can give us the impression of being overly busy. We expect to receive an answer far more quickly than for “snail mail”. That can cause us stress and make us feel that other people are slowing us down.
So-called labour saving devices like dishwashers and vacuum cleaners have been shown to actually add to the amount of housework we do. When it’s so quick, why not clean the house three times a week rather than once (then feel as though we’re “always” cleaning)?
Advances in transport mean that no-one thinks twice about commuting an hour to work. We forget that our grandparents wouldn’t have considered making such a journey every day, nor would they have suffered the stress of traffic jams, delayed trains and unexplained hold-ups.
2. The more choices we have, the more things we haven’t done
Developments in technology and transport give us a fantastic range of ways to spend our spare time.
When it comes to planning an evening, it used to be simple. Stay in and watch TV or go to a movie. Now if we stay home we can watch a film on many devices. If we go out, we can choose a multiplex, an arthouse cinema, even a film club. Then where should we eat, and what style of food?
For our holidays, we can choose from virtually anywhere in the world. Our only restrictions are money and time. The idea of a bucket list of the places we “must” see emphasises that many of us feel we need to prioritise.
Whatever we decide, according to Hartmut Rosa, we’re always aware of what we choose NOT to do. There are far more potential options than realisable options. That can make us feel time is scarce and that we’re missing out on everything we rejected.
3. There are different ways to see time
Robert Levine, American psychologist, has identified that there are three types of time perception.
Clock time people stick to times carefully because they know when their next appointment is due. For these people, lunch is taken by the clock, from perhaps 1.00 – 1.30, and then they go to their next engagement.
Event time people are more likely to suggest that lunch takes as long as it takes. They arrive when they’re ready and leave when they’re done. These two types can drive each other mad with their different views – as anyone who’s ever organised a party knows.
There’s a third type too – mainly found in the most remote places in the world. People who live by ‘nature time’, set by the progress of the sun and the changing of the seasons, are the most likely to suggest meeting “when the cows come home”.
4. Different cultures view time in different ways
Levine also theorises on different cultures’ view of time. He investigated how people around the world perform common tasks, like buying a stamp or walking a short distance.
He finds that the more developed a society, the faster time seems to go. People work and walk faster (by up to 50%) in wealthier, more industrialised, cooler and more individualistic societies. For the slowest pace of life, head to the least prosperous, least industrialised, warmer, more community-minded countries. On top of that, time goes faster in cities than in the countryside.
Time goes fastest of all in the big industrial cities of Western Europe and Asia. Their residents are likely to say they are happier with their lives, but are also more likely to suffer from stress. Time feels slower, and people feel less rushed, in rural areas in less developed countries like Mexico and Indonesia.
5. When you’re absorbed in something, time seems to stand still
Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi writes about what he calls “flow” – the experience of being totally absorbed in an activity. We’re completely immersed, focused and enjoying what we’re doing.
When we’re in flow we’re often full of joy, performing at our very best, and oblivious to the passing of time. We tend to think about nothing else – external stimuli like noise and temperature, or internal ones like hunger. Whether it’s for work or for a hobby, this can be a marvellous way to counter feelings of busy-ness and rush.