Changing our perspective on time

What is life? Life is just many seconds, so whatever you do, take your time – you have a lifetime of many seconds.

This is what one of my yoga therapy teachers said when we were talking about stress and the time pressure we continuously experience. It made me think about our perception of time, how we experience time, and how we cope with it.

I remember a friend once said to me: ‘I love traffic jams.’ How can you possibly love traffic jams? They are the biggest enemy of most drivers moving from A to B. His answer was: ‘They give you plenty of time to ponder.’ This thought made me smile. Before he said this to me, I never considered pondering or daydreaming, let alone doing this in traffic jams, as a positive way to spend time.

Until recently, I absolutely did not like to waste time, that is, to spend time inefficiently or with things I considered useless. I used to hate waiting in queues, staring out of the window without doing anything, or just wandering around for too long. A waste of time, a waste of your life, I thought. I believed I should make the most of every moment; I could – and sometimes still can – be characterized as a pretty impatient person. A lot of rajas, according to yoga philosophy, or vata-dominant, you could say from an ayurvedic perspective.

I noticed this pattern coming back in yin yoga classes, during meditation and mindfulness exercises. Why are we sitting still for such a long time?, my mind said all the time, each few seconds again. Tension was running through my body, so that I felt I wanted to move. Stillness didn’t feel right at all, although I realized that slowing down sometimes could be valuable. But my mind kept pushing me to move, to do useful things, to work, I shouldn’t be lazy, no time to sit down or lie down.

It’s not surprising that I, raised in a European society, have grown up with this mindset. Anthropologists and social psychologists note that in our western society, we conceptualize time as a linear function. We are always on our way to some goal in the future. After birth, we move along this line in the course of life, and it ends when we die. We want to achieve something in life. We do not want to waste our life. It seems so obvious to approach time as a linear concept; we learn at a very young age that this is the motion of time, without ever thinking about it consciously.

However, different perspectives on time exist in other cultures. For example, time can be conceptualized as circular rather than linear. In a circular or cyclic perspective of time, it is believed that everything is recurring. This perspective is characteristic of some eastern philosophies, such as in Confucianism and Zen Buddhism, but was also contemplated by many Western philosophers who argued physical death is not the end of existence, such as Plato and Nietzsche. Other cultures take a viewpoint of developments in time at a larger scale, so that the achievements in the life of an individual are not that significant; it’s rather the cumulative achievements over many generations, on a larger timeline, that matter. This approach is characteristic of some South-American cultures. Again other cultures, as observed by the anthropologist Benjamin Lee Whorf, do not even have any grammatical concept of time in their language, which may mean time is not that significant to them.

As can be seen in The Time Paradox, written by social psychologists Zimbardo and Boyd, most research on time perspectives shows that a future-oriented approach is associated with better outcomes. These ‘better outcomes’ are defined as academic and occupational success, or building up status and wealth. In contrast, a present-oriented time perspective is associated with higher risk taking and pleasure seeking. Note that these conclusions are tied to some assumptions; why is academic success or status necessarily a good thing? What is the drive behind it? What is the bigger purpose? Does status and success always make you happier? Does it make the world a better place?

When you think about this, the way we are oriented in time is tied to our goals, which are in turn tied to our values and our definition of happiness. Happiness in Zimbardo and Boyd’s book is automatically defined as achieving goals that are conventional in the western society. But what if we define happiness differently? Then it is not such a waste of time if you don’t spend time working towards these goals. Then your aim might be just to live consciously, regardless of what exactly you do. And this is rather living in the present than in an imagined future.

Not to say that setting goals for the future is necessarily a bad thing; that would be the extreme opposite of saying that doing ‘nothing’ is an inherently bad thing. I’m a proponent of making the best of different worlds.  So what if we integrate the circular with the future-oriented approach? Then we could set goals, but work on them consciously instead of achieving them as fast as possible. With this mindset, you can see your activities as practicing working on your goal, or as a process, so that you don’t have to do it perfectly the first time you try; everything comes back, including opportunities. Tomorrow will be a new day, with more time to practice, new chances to try. Ponder about this the next time you’re in a traffic jam!


Inspired by:
Munn, N. D. (1992). The cultural anthropology of time: A critical essay. Annual Review of Anthropology, 21, pp. 93-123.
Ornstein, R. E. (1975). On the experience of time. [Thesis]
Zimbardo, P., & Boyd, J. (1999). Putting Time in Perspective: A Valid, Reliable Individual- Difference Metric. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), pp. 1271-88.

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