2020, Time Perception, and Lessons for Living a Longer Life
Why novel experiences change our perception, and how to use this for a more memorable life
2020 has been a hell of a decade. This of course is not an original joke, but one that I think resonates with us all. Thinking back to January or February 2020 really, actually, feels like years ago — not months. It’s difficult to contextualize now, but we began 2020 worrying about record-breaking Australian brush fires and the outcome of the impeachment of the U.S. President, two hugely significant historical events that seem like distant, quaint memories. Why is that, and what lessons can we take away?
One explanation for 2020's collective eschewing of our temporal perception is known as “the oddball effect” or “the holiday paradox,” two theories which credit the recording of novel experiences as recallable memories for inflating perceived durations of time. Simply put — the more new, unique experiences you have in a given period of time, the more easily recallable memories you’ve recorded, the longer that duration of time “seems” in retrospect.
2020 has been nothing if not a ridiculous number of successive novel experiences and memories for us all — even if one was sitting in their home for most of the time, reading or watching events unfold around the world. Australian brush fires, impeachment, the escalation of COVID-19, Tom Hanks’ infection, the NBA cancellation, lock-downs, remote work, George Floyd, protests, Portland, remote school, Presidential debates, a Presidential election, a Presidential infection, the stock market dip & run, vaccines… the list goes on and on of completely unpredictable and shocking events that most of us have seared into our memories, remembering exactly how we felt and where we were (well… probably at home) when we learned of them. Someone could easily write an updated version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” the Billy Joel song which chronicled major events in American history from 1949–1989, for just the year 2020.
In “normal” years, our daily routine ends up being pretty forgettable, and the days and weeks compound or are lost in our recallable memories. This makes looking back on any certain year feel pretty short — sure, we remember the holidays, birthdays, big life events, travel, and other new experiences; but months and months of the same routine all seem to disappear in retrospect. This is one potential factor for why time seems to “speed up” as we age, as described in Scientific American:
“From childhood to early adulthood, we have many fresh experiences and learn countless new skills. As adults, though, our lives become more routine, and we experience fewer unfamiliar moments. As a result, our early years tend to be relatively overrepresented in our autobiographical memory and, on reflection, seem to have lasted longer.”
Let me put it this way: a long-term over-reliance on the same routine is the enemy of a long-life. Not in measured years, but in autobiographical memories and perceived time. Understanding now (as 2020 has taught all of us first hand), that new experiences make our lives feel longer than the same-old, same-old — we can put this knowledge to good use by being intentional about breaking our routines on a regular basis and making long-lasting memories.
As a personal anecdote, the longest year of my life before 2020 was 2016, when I quit my desk job at the age of 26 after 4 years of a pretty similar routine to backpack through Europe for a summer. Each day over those three months was a completely new and foreign experience, and in retrospect those few months “feel” similar in duration to years of sitting at the same desk every day. Of course, this is an extreme example. We can’t all be traveling to new places all the time. But I do believe there are ways to create novel memories, break out of our routine, and therefore live longer lives (in retrospect).
It doesn’t need to be huge — just something different and new to you. Take a [cooking, woodworking, dance, music] class. Make something new / creative. Explore cultural institutions, events, and attractions that you haven’t visited in your area. Try a new spot for dinner on a regular basis. Surprise your partner in a way you haven’t before. Go on a day-trip or weekend getaway when you can. Take a “Ferris Bueller day off!” While the experience doesn’t have to be grand, it does take time, commitment, and intention to prioritize and seek out novel experiences on a regular basis.
Some people suggest making even smaller adjustments to shake up your routine, such as driving a different route home or switching the arm your watch is on — but I don’t think these are meaningful enough to look back on fondly years from now. The ideal recipe for me of a fulfilling novel experience has some combination of the following factors: 1) it is shared with someone you love (or at least like); 2) it’s in a location or environment that is new; or 3) you learn something from it.
One final tip is to enhance your recall ability by journaling regularly or using an app like 1 Second Everyday to memorialize a moment from each day. Having some sort of stimulus — whether a written account or a photo to trigger a memory — is an opportunity to revisit said stimulus occasionally and bring that memory rushing back to you. Imagine how much more full your life will feel looking back on it if you could revisit any day, what happened, and how you felt about it — written from your own perspective in the moment, instead of those moments disappearing into oblivion.
While 2020 has been the longest year mostly for all of the wrong reasons, hopefully some of these ideas to focus on creating lasting memories with new experiences can help make the rest of your years and life feel a little longer for some of the right reasons.