The Frontal Cortex

On Turning 40

An eloquent elegy to age, written by Steven Johnson on his fortieth birthday:

One of the things that’s always stuck with me from my Mind Wide Open research is that human beings vary predictably in their perception of time as they age. Time literally seems to go faster the older you get–not just in the span of decades, but also in the span of minutes. Put someone in a room without a clock or watch and ask them to guess when an hour has passed, and on average, the older person will perceive the hour zipping by faster than the younger person.

The older I get, the more I think that one of the keys to happiness–or at least one of the signs of happiness–is getting to some kind of place where time seems to be passing at the right speed. Maybe this is one of the weird hidden benefits of hitting the exact middle of your life expectancy, but I really do feel that sense of temporal balance right now: I don’t feel like the kids are growing up too fast or too slow; I love where they are in their development right now, but I can’t wait to see the next phases too. I love having almost ten years of married life behind me, but can’t wait for all the adventures we’re going to have in the next ten and beyond.

The only thing that seems a little accelerated, here at the turning point of forty, are the seasons. I wrote most of this on Shelter Island on a little 24-hour solo excursion to hang out by myself and play a little golf, and on the ferry over it was one of those brilliant early summer days, the first real beach day I’d experienced this year. Part of me thought “Ah, that first feeling of summer in the Northeast –I love that.” But then there was immediately this shadow thought, that if the actuarial calendar is right, I’m only going to experience that first-day-of-summer feeling forty more times. The number of summer days stretching ahead of me seems, for all practical purposes, infinite. But the number of seasons themselves seems unnervingly finite. In my mind, when I think of it that way, time does seem to speed up a little.


  1. #1 Bob
    June 10, 2008

    “An eloquent elegy to age”? 40? Calm down, kids!

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