The normal way we set about trying to extend our lives is by striving to add more years to them. Usually by eating more couscous and broccoli, going to bed early, and jogging in the rain. But this approach may turn out to be fanciful, not only because death can’t reliably be warded off with kale, but at a deeper level because the best way to lengthen a life is not by attempting to stick more years on to its tail.
One of the most basic facts about time is that even though we insist on measuring it as if it were an objective unit, it doesn’t in all conditions feel as if it were moving at the same pace. Five minutes can feel like an hour — ten hours can feel like five minutes. A decade may pass like two years. Two years may acquire the weight of half a century, and so on. In other words, our subjective experience of time bears precious little relation to the way we like to measure it on a clock. Time moves more or less slowly according to the quirks of the human mind. It may fly or it may drag. It may evaporate into airy nothing or achieve enduring density.
If the goal is to have a longer life, whatever the dietitians may urge, it seems like the priority should not be to add raw increments of time but to ensure that whatever years remain feel appropriately substantial. The aim should be to densify time rather than to try to extract one or two more years from the fickle grip of death.
Why then does time have such different speeds? Moving at certain points fast, and at others with intricate moderation. The clue is to be found in childhood. The first ten years almost invariably feel longer than any other decade we have on earth. The teens are a little faster but still crawl. Then by our 40s, time would have started to trot — and by our 60s it will be unfolding at a wildering gala.
The difference in pace is not mysterious. It all has to do with novelty. The more our days are filled with new, unpredictable, and challenging experiences, the longer they will feel. And conversely the more one day is exactly like another, the faster it will pass by in an evanescent blur. Childhood ends up feeling so long because it is the cauldron of novelty — because its most ordinary days are packed with extraordinary discoveries and sensations. These can be as apparently minor yet as significant as the first time we explore the zipper on a cardigan, or hold our nose underwater. The first time we look at the sun through the cotton of a beach towel, or dig our fingers into the dirt of our parent’s garden, and smell the soil on our hands.
Dense as it is with stimuli, the first decade might as well be a thousand years long. By middle-age things can be counted upon to have grown a lot more familiar. We may have flown around the world a few times. We no longer get excited by the idea of eating a mango, driving a car, or flipping a light switch. We know how it feels to be in a relationship, to earn our own money, and be in a position of power at work. As a result, time runs away from us without mercy.
One solution often suggested at this point is that we should put all our efforts into discovering fresh sources of novelty. We can’t just continue to live our small predictable and therefore swift lives in a single narrow domain. We need to become explorers and adventurers. We must join Remote Year and then go to Machu Picchu, or stay at Casa en el Agua, or shop in The Medina of Marrakech. We need to find a way to swim with the sharks in South Africa, or order a 13 course meal at a world-famous restaurant in Downtown Lima. That will finally slow down the cruel gallop of time. But this is to labor under an unfair, expensive, and ultimately impractical notion of novelty.
We may by middle-age certainly have seen a great many things, but we are, fortunately for us, unlikely to have properly noticed most of them. We have probably taken a few cursory glances at the miracles of existence that are at hand and assumed quite unjustly that we know all there is to know about them. We’ve imagined we understand the city we live in, the people we interact with, and more or less the point of it all. But of course, we have barely scratched the surface. We have grown bored of a world we haven’t begun to study properly, and that, among other things, is why time is racing by.
The pioneers at making life feel longer in the way that really counts are not dieticians, but artists and authors. At its best, art is a tool that reminds us of how little we have fathomed and noticed. It reintroduces us to the texture of an apple, or dissects a snapshot of ordinary life on a city street, or forces us to evaluate the feeling manifesting behind a stranger’s face in a portrait. Art takes ordinary things and reopens our eyes to a latent beauty and interest, in precisely those areas we had ceased to bother with. It helps us to recover some of the manic sensitivity we had as newborns.
We don’t need to make art in order to learn the most valuable lesson of artists, which is about noticing properly, living with our eyes open, and thereby along the way savoring time. Without any intention to create something that could be put in a gallery, we could as part of a goal of living more deliberately, take a walk in an unfamiliar part of town, ask an old relative about a side of their life we’d never dared to probe at, lie on our back in the garden and look up at the stars, or hold our partner in a way we never tried before. It takes a rabid lack of imagination to think we have to go to Machu Picchu to find something new.
It is sensible enough to try to live longer lives but we are working with a false notion of what long really means. We might live to be a thousand years old and still complain that it had all rushed by too fast. We should be aiming to lead lives that feel long, because we have managed to instill them with the right sort of open-hearted appreciation — the kind that five-year-olds know naturally how to bring to bear.
We need to pause and look at one another’s faces, study the evening sky, wonder at the eddies and colors of the river, and dare to find answers to the kind of questions that open our souls. We don’t need to add years — we need to densify the time we have left by ensuring that every day is lived consciously. And we can do this via a maneuver as simple as it is momentous — by starting to notice all that we have, as yet, only seen.