Time perception, well-being, and mindfulness

Happy 2019! A year has passed. This is the time of the year that I often hear people exclaim: “time flies”! However, the perception of time is subjective. Most people will agree that time seems to pass more rapidly as we grow older.

The perception of time when we age

Data from research studies have suggested that the perception of the passage of time and the way we judgment past periods of time are a function of our age [1]. Such subjective acceleration of time has been the interest of study of many philosophers, psychologists, and scientists. There are many interesting theories attempting to explain this phenomenon [2].

In childhood, every experience is memorable and distinct.

One theory suggests that we gauge the magnitude of past intervals of time on the number of events we can recall. In childhood, every experience is memorable and distinct, but in adulthood, there too many automatic routines that are not worth storing and recollecting [2]. Hence, with less memorable events over the past year, older adults perceived that time passed faster.

Another is the ratio theory which is my favourite. It explains the impression of a given interval is based on the amount of time one has lived. One year for a 5-year-old boy is 1/5 or 20% of his life, whereas the same year for a 50-year-old man is merely 2% of his life. As such, the perception of time varies inversely with one’s age [2].

Time seems to pass more rapidly as we grow older .

Some suggested that older people appear to have an internal clock that perceives the passing of time faster than younger people [3]. Whereas another theory postulates that one has only finite resources of attention. When one is fully engaged in a task or something of interest, like watching a movie, we hardly pay attention to the time, and time seems to pass quickly. The attention resources are diminishing with age, as such, time appears to pass faster.

Time perception and well-being

Regardless of the actual mechanisms that cause us to perceive time faster when we grow older. This ability is not a bad thing though. When feeling bored, the day seems to be longer. In a study conducted among elderly in age-care, faster time perception was found to associate with better psychological functioning. Elders who could perceive the faster passage of time were found to have less depression, enhanced sense of purpose and control, and fell “younger” [2].

Time passes slowly in sickness.

Furthermore, depressive patients, regardless of age, often perceive time to pass very slowly as confirmed in a meta-analysis of 16 studies that compared depressive patients to healthy individuals [4]. Anxious people also find time passes slowly during stressful moments [5]. Another study shows that a stronger increase in pain perception will lead to a larger distortion in time estimate [6]. This explains why when we are in pain, the pain seems to last “forever”! Similarly, another study also shows those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder have a slower time estimate than healthy subjects [7].

Depression makes time feel slower !

Clearly, it is human nature to wish for “time flies when having fun” then having to bear with things “painfully slow”.

Mindfulness and time perception

Non-judgmental awareness of the present moment.

Mindfulness is the ability to focus attention with a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment [8]. Taught by the Buddha as an important mental training to awaken the inner self, mindfulness meditation has gained increasing popularity worldwide for improvement of physiological and physical well-being.

Awareness of the present moment.

Mindfulness practice can alter the perception of time. By continuously focusing attention internally (e.g. one’s breath) and/or externally with moment-to-moment awareness, one not only achieves a state of calm but also changes the sense of time and even experience an altered state of consciousness with the sense of “timelessness” and “spacelessness” in the meditative state [9]. In daily living, mindfulness helps one to become more sensitive to time and able to be more attentive to the task on hand [10]. This altered sense of time can help one better cope with mental and emotional stress.

The sense of “timelessness” in the meditative state with mindfulness.

Practising mindfulness has been found to be an effective approach to improve many physiological conditions, such as anxiety and depression [11]. It also helps to relieve pain and improves the quality of life of patients with chronic pain [12]. Mindfulness training has also been promoted as a way for healthy aging as it can improve attention and cognitive function which help to enhance overall well-being for older people [13].      


We can’t stop the passage of time, but we can change how we perceive time. With mindfulness practice, the subjective perception of time is altered with the moment to moment awareness. We may be in pain or feel sad, but with mindfulness, we will be able to “get out of” the pain or emotional turmoil and focus on the positive aspect of life.

“Be happy in the moment, that’s enough. Each moment is all we need, not more.” ― Mother Theresa

Image source: Flickr


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[2]        W.J. Friedman, S.M.J. Janssen, Aging and the speed of time, Acta Psychol. (Amst). 134 (2010) 130–141. doi:10.1016/j.actpsy.2010.01.004.

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[4]        S. Thönes, D. Oberfeld, Time perception in depression: A meta-analysis, J. Affect. Disord. 175 (2015) 359–372. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2014.12.057.

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[7]        C.M. Vicario, K.L. Felmingham, Slower Time estimation in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder., Sci. Rep. 8 (2018) 392. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-18907-5.

[8]        J. Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Context: Past, Present, and Future, Clin. Psychol. Sci. Pract. 10 (2003) 144–156. doi:10.1093/clipsy.bpg016.

[9]        A. Berkovich-Ohana, Y. Dor-Ziderman, J. Glicksohn, A. Goldstein, Alterations in the sense of time, space, and body in the mindfulness-trained brain: a neurophenomenologically-guided MEG study, Front. Psychol. 4 (2013). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00912.

[10]      R.S.S. Kramer, U.W. Weger, D. Sharma, The effect of mindfulness meditation on time perception, Conscious. Cogn. 22 (2013) 846–852. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2013.05.008.

[11]      S.B. Goldberg, R.P. Tucker, P.A. Greene, R.J. Davidson, B.E. Wampold, D.J. Kearney, T.L. Simpson, Mindfulness-based interventions for psychiatric disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis, Clin. Psychol. Rev. 59 (2018) 52–60. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2017.10.011.

[12]      L. Hilton, S. Hempel, B.A. Ewing, E. Apaydin, L. Xenakis, S. Newberry, B. Colaiaco, A.R. Maher, R.M. Shanman, M.E. Sorbero, M.A. Maglione, Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis, Ann. Behav. Med. 51 (2017) 199–213. doi:10.1007/s12160-016-9844-2.

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