The paradox of time that keeps us from enjoying our lives
There is probably nothing more mind-numbing than working on a task that is meaningless, boring, or uninspiring. It is the feeling we get when we are sitting in a lengthy and irrelevant meeting and the one we get when we are revising work that was well-done to meet the demands of an uncaring and capricious boss.
When we are doing it, time slows down.
On the other hand, when we are doing something we enjoy, that is fun or uplifting, time speeds up. It is like the old saying, time flies when you are having fun. We look up and suddenly find it is later than we thought and things have to come to an early, unexpected, and unwanted end.
This is the paradox of time.
Time slows down when we are doing what we do not enjoy, and
speeds up when we are doing what we do enjoy.
Why does this happen? First, when we are doing something that we do not like we tend to focus sharply on both the task and our negative emotions. Not only are we not having fun, but we make it worse because we keep telling ourselves that we are not having fun. It is this focus that brings all the bad elements to the front of our mind, where we ruminate on them and let them make us feel bad. There is probably no faster way to stop enjoying something than to start judging it.
But what about when we are doing something we do like? When we are having fun, our focus shifts. We stop judging what we are doing and we simply experience it. Our presence in the moment has shifted to autopilot. We are immersed in what we are doing and so the passage of time is beyond our field of view.
In the field of Positive Psychology, they use the term flow to describe this phenomenon. What is flow? Flow is what happens when we are completely immersed in an activity. We sometimes call it being in the zone. It is often accompanied by a feeling of effortless effort; things just happen naturally and with a sense of synchronicity.
We have difficulty holding on to and sustaining
our positive emotions.
Like a lot of counseling, therapeutic, and self-help methods today, Positive Psychology also has an emphasis on being present in our lives as we experience it, especially when we stop and enjoy positive events and emotions. But we typically have trouble doing this. Our negativity bias creates a problem. Honestly, I can say that in the past I have had feelings of worry or depression that lasted for weeks at a time, but I can’t say I have had feelings of joy and happiness for weeks at a time. It is an unfortunate truth that we can sustain and dwell on bad feelings and anxiety for days, even months, at a time. But we have greater difficulty holding on to our positive emotions.
So how can we squeeze a little more time out of our positive emotions and the good experiences we have?
First, we can purposely create more. We don’t have to wait for positive things to happen, we can make them happen. We can also make an effort to consciously recognize it when good things do happen. A lot of times we have a poor emotional vocabulary. We tend to label small, positive things that happen throughout the day as emotionally neutral. Did someone say thank you, hold a door for us, or do us a small favor? We often do not give it a second thought.
Lastly, we can create a memory about the good things that happen to us. Instead of letting the moment pass forever, we can enjoy it and remind ourselves of what is happening so we can recall it later and relive the joy of the moment.
For more insights see my books and blog at https://www.jamesmcginley.com.
Or my YouTube channel, The Coping Expert, at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCbsIoVmbTlMZFNqv_1vCu9Q
James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life – whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.
(Image from Unsplash)