It often feels as though time speeds up as we age, with each season and year seemingly passing by more quickly than the last. And according to some psychologists, in addition to aging, the way we interact with technology could also have a profound effect on the way we experience time.
Sitting in front of computers all day, we're constantly confronted by a clock telling us what time it is, and it's no different whether we're at home or on the go: 60 percent of Gen Yers (ages 18-30) find themselves compulsively or subconsciously checking their smart phones for emails, texts, or social media updates, according to a 2012 Cisco report.
This ever-present technology is changing not only the way we perceive time, but also the way we think, according to Dr. Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford and author of The Time Paradox: The New Psychology Of Time That Will Change Your Life.
"[Technology creates] a funny kind of obsession with time, but it's this very short-focused, immediate-present time," Zimbardo tells The Huffington Post.
The way we perceive and experience time can have a profound psychological effect. Far from being objective, time is, in fact, a highly subjective experience, one that's subject to technological and cultural influences. From an early age, our highly malleable time perceptions become biased. In The Time Paradox, Zimbardo argues that we all operate from one of three primary time biases. Those who tend to think of their current experiences in terms of what they've already experienced are past-oriented, those who focus on the immediate are present-oriented, and those who think in long-term projections are more future-oriented.
"Time has a powerful effect on our lives that we're unaware of," says Zimbardo. "I argue that it's the most powerful influence on everything we do. It's so powerful because we get programmed very early in life to be in one of these 'time zones.'"
The ideal balance, Zimbardo explains, is to be moderately future-oriented (enough to be motivated to work towards our goals but not so much as to breed workaholism), moderately past-positive (when we look back on our lives, we have a generally positive outlook), and moderately "present hedonistic," meaning that we take time out for friends, family and fun, but are not so pleasure-oriented as to have addictive tendencies.
But over-reliance on technology -- constantly checking email and social networks, and being distracted by alerts on our mobile devices -- can take us out of both the past and the future, and into a state of heightened "present hedonism" in which we're constantly focused (in a sometimes compulsive way) on what's either right in front of us or coming immediately afterwards.
"We're simply being in that moment to take the next action," says Zimbardo. "It's really minimizing the quality of life. It's minimizing the joy that we ought to be getting from everyday life."
Here are four things you should know about how technology affects your perception of time.
Being connected can speed up your sense of time.
Our constant access to virtually unlimited amounts of news and updates can create a need for immediacy that speeds up both our information intake and our perception of time.
"Our personal 'time zone' can be modified by technology, because it speeds up our internal clock," says Zimbardo. "Technology makes us impatient for anything that takes more than seconds to achieve. You press a button and you expect instant access ... so technology is pushing more and more of us into a very immediately-focused time zone. That means that we tend to ignore the future consequences of our behavior."
Because we're used to being constantly occupied, many of us have a hard time slowing down or waiting. A 2012 Pew survey found that among Millennials, hyper-connectivity can contribute to a need for instant gratification and a lack of patience.
It can trap us in the 'next' moment.
Technology can trap us in a cycle of instant gratification -- we're stuck in a present moment in which we are not fully present because we're also anticipating the next moment, Zimbardo explains.
Being plugged in keeps us focused on the next thing, looking at the future in a very short term sense of waiting for the next update. According to a 2011 Ipsos poll, 27 percent of teens use Facebook continuously throughout the day.
"They're constantly checking, hoping that something will be there," says Zimbardo. "Hope is a very future-oriented thing, but it's a very short term thing. 'I hope somebody will see the picture I posted, I hope somebody will respond.' So it's an intensive living in the present, and the future is very short-term. It's about the next hit."
This present-orientation can make us more susceptible to instant gratification.
We live in a world of temptation, says Zimbardo, and being future-oriented -- meaning that we act in the interest of our more long-term goals and values -- is what keeps us from giving in to our momentary desires.
In order to get to any long term goal you have to have plans, an agenda, a to-do list," says Zimbardo. "Future-oriented people are very good at getting these things done.
But when we become excessively present-orientated and focused on instant gratification, we're more susceptible to compulsive behavior.
"Present-oriented people are primed to be addicted to anything, because once they do it and it's good, they can't not do it again," says Zimbardo. "Video games or online activity becomes addictive when you would rather be doing that than anything else in the world. Eventually, it stops being a choice and it becomes an automatic behavior.
You can expand your present moment through mindfulness.
So what's Zimbardo's prescription for those stuck in a cycle of instant gratification? Take a time out.
"We have to take a time out from obsession with time," Zimbardo says. "Sometimes it's to do nothing -- to rest, take a walk, do some Zen breathing exercise."
Through mindfulness practices like meditation, we can bring ourselves into a truly present -- rather than divided and distracted -- present moment. And that can literally slow down time. A recent University of Kent study suggested that mindfulness meditation can actually alter time perception, creating a sense of time slowing down by shifting the brain's attentional resources.
"Zen has another kind of present orientation called the 'expanded present,'" Zimbardo says. "It's not present hedonism -- it's awareness of the self, and ultimately, losing the self."
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