Time flies when you are having fun. But does the reverse hold as well? Do you have more fun when time flies?
In a recent study, psychologists asked volunteers to take a “10-minute test” in a room without clocks (and the volunteers were not allowed to have watches or other timekeeping devices). The test utilized a relatively simple word search – not a lot of fun but not really adverse. For half the volunteers, they called “time’s up” when only five minutes had passed and for the other half they did not end the test for 20 minutes (but both groups were told that the test took 10 minutes). Then both groups rated the experience for enjoyment, challenge, fun, engagement, and so forth. And the results were clear: If the ten minutes passed surprisingly quickly, volunteers found the word search task more pleasurable than if time seemed to drag. This doesn’t mean they found it exhilarating, or that the others found it crushingly boring—but their subjective experiences were definitely different on the pleasure scale.
In a second study, the psychologists forced the volunteers to listen to a tape recording of a dot matrix printer for 30 seconds. While they listened, they watched the elapsed time tick off on a screen except that, unbeknownst to the volunteers, the elapsing time was either too slow or too fast. So again, for some time flew, while for others time dragged. And again, time perceptions shaped emotions. When time flew, the tedious listening experience seemed less tedious, more bearable. When it dragged, it was worse; these listeners said they would rather listen to an electric drill if given the option. Then they ran the experiment with a pleasant audiotape of a favorite song and once again time distortions determined the pleasure of the listening experience. That is, a pleasant experience became more pleasant.
What accounts for this effect? As the researchers explain, humans are sense-making creatures. If we perceive something in the world as surprising, we automatically (even subconsciously) look for an explanation for the aberration. So if time seems distorted, we want to know why—and our intuitive physics clicks in: If time flies when we’re having fun, then flying time must signal that something fun is taking place. Or so the theory goes.
So, this brings up an interesting question – which is better: a long boring life, or a quicker fun one? One take is found in the book Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. In Catch-22 one character, Lieutenant Dunbar, theorizes that if he occupies his time with only the most boring or unpleasant tasks, his life will seem much longer. When questioned on it by another character, Clevinger, the following exchange occurs:
“Do you know how long a year takes when it’s going away?” Dunbar repeated to Clevinger. “This long.” He snapped his fingers. “A second ago you were stepping into college with your lungs full of fresh air. Today you’re an old man.”
“Old? I’m not old”
“You’re inches away from death every time you go on a mission. How much older can you be at your age? A half minute before that you were stepping into high school, and an unhooked brassiere was as close as you ever hoped to get to Paradise. Only a fifth of a second before that you were a small kid with a ten-week summer vacation that lasted a hundred thousand years and still ended too soon. Zip! They go rocketing by so fast. How the hell else are you ever going to slow time down?” Dunbar was almost angry when he finished.
“Well, maybe it is true,” Clevinger conceded unwillingly in a subdued tone. “Maybe a long life does have to be filled with many unpleasant conditions if it’s to seem long. But in that event, who wants one?”
“I do,” Dunbar told him.
“Why?” Clevinger asked.
“What else is there?”