What would you say if someone asked you how long it has been since the start of lockdown in the UK? After a bit of head scratching, you would likely arrive at the objectively correct answer.
But what if you were asked how long it has felt like since the start of lockdown? That’s a much more complicated question because our perception of time is highly subjective.
It is subjective because we construct our experience of time in our mind – meaning it can feel like it expands or contracts depending on the context.
Most of us know this intuitively. And the majority of us report that lockdown has distorted their experience of time (80% according to a recent study).
But perhaps few of us really understand why. The answers, provided by a wide range of psychology studies over the past half century, are surprising and varied.
One of the most robust findings from this research is the importance of emotions on our perception of time. It turns out that Pliny was correct when he wrote in AD105 that ‘the happier the time, the shorter it seems’. And that the reverse is also true – it feels like time passes much more slowly when we are feeling rejected, down, or bored. As the saying goes: ‘a watched pot never boils’.
But there’s a paradox at the heart of this research, which is that time can fly by in the moment, but feel much longer when you look back. Psychologists have labelled this the holiday paradox: you perceive a great holiday to be short during the trip away, but it seems to have lasted much longer retrospectively.
In order to understand this phenomenon, it is useful to make a distinction between the experiencing self (our moment-to-moment consciousness) and the remembering self.
It turns out that novel experiences, such as the kind we might encounter on a good holiday, pass by as quick joyful moments for the experiencing self. But for the remembering self, novelty produces more vivid memories, which skew our perception of these events when we look back.
This is because we partly judge how much time has passed during a certain period by searching our memory of that period. And the more vivid memories we find, the more time we assume has passed.
For many of us, a lockdown existence relatively shy of novel stimuli and full of repetitive daily routines will have slowed the passage of time for our experiencing self. But this very lack of novelty will ultimately result in our remembering self having a different perception of time, with few vivid memories to call upon. We can think about this as a kind of holiday paradox in reverse.
Looking forward, it is possible that as the economy begins to open up, previously routine activities (like hugging your grandchildren, going to the swimming pool, or having a meal with friends) suddenly feel like emotionally-charged, novel events.
And if that’s the case, it is likely that the next 12 months will fly by for our experiencing selves and linger in the memories of our remembering selves.