Psychologists Study “Time Flies When You’re Having Fun” Phenomenon

Do you ever wonder why time seems to pass faster when you are doing something enjoyable? A new study, published by two researchers in the College’s Department of Psychology, suggests that the feeling that time is somehow shorter seems to be the specific result of a desire to approach or pursue something, not a more general effect of heightened attention or physiological arousal. The results of the study are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The new study conducted by Dr. Philip Gable and Bryan Pool, both associate professors in the Department of Psychology, indicates the “time flies when you’re having fun” adage may really be true, with a caveat: time flies when we’re have goal-motivated fun.

Existing research demonstrates that experiencing positive feelings or states makes us feel like time is passing faster than negative feelings and states do. But, as some researchers observe, not all positive states are created equal. Sometimes we experience feelings of contentment or serenity. These feelings are certainly positive ones, but they aren’t very high in what researchers call ‘approach motivation’ – they don’t make us want to go out and pursue or achieve something.

Feelings of desire or excitement, on the other hand, are very high in approach motivation – desire and excitement motivate us to go forth and conquer. Gable and Pool hypothesized that it is specifically those states that are high in approach motivation that make us feel like time is passing quickly. They tested their assumption in a series of three experiments.

In one of the experiments, participants were trained to tell the difference between pictures shown for a ‘short’ or a ‘long’ period of time. The participants then viewed pictures that were neutral such as geometric shapes, that were positive but low in approach motivation such as flowers, or that were positive and high in approach motivation like images of delicious desserts. For each picture, they had to indicate whether the picture had been displayed for a short or long period of time.

Just as the researchers hypothesized, the participants perceived the enticing pictures of desserts as having been displayed for a shorter amount of time than either the neutral geometric shapes or the pleasing pictures of flowers.

The researchers also found that the perceived amount of time for the enticing pictures was related to when participants had eaten that day. Those participants who had eaten recently, which lowered their approach motivation for food, judged the dessert pictures as having been displayed for longer periods of time than their hungrier peers.

These findings were confirmed in a second study, in which participants reported time as passing faster when they looked at the dessert pictures with the expectation that they would be able to eat those desserts later, suggesting that our desire to approach something really does make time fly by.

Gable and Pool propose that states high in approach motivation make us feel like time is passing quickly because they narrow our memory and attention processes, helping us to shut out irrelevant thoughts and feelings.

“Although we tend to believe that time flies when we’re having a good time, these studies indicate what it is about the enjoyable time that causes it to go by more quickly,” said Gable. “It seems to be the goal pursuit or achievement-directed action we’re engaged in that matters. Just being content or satisfied may not make time fly, but being excited or actively pursuing a desired object can.”