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The Forgettability of Sameness
Or, why you need fun in your life.
You probably know the saying, "Time flies when you're having fun." There is truth to that, but I'd say the opposite is even more accurate—that time flies (or disappears) when you don't have fun because it all melds into one big blur of nothingness. When one's daily life consists of an overly predictable routine, it risks becoming unremarkable to the point of not being able to differentiate between days, months, and years in one's memory.
This is something I mull over frequently, especially now as I emerge from the fog of raising young children. (They're still dependent on me, but I have more time and space to myself.) When I think back on the past 14 years, I can barely recall the details of daily life with three kids, but the unusual, abnormal occasions shine through that fog like beacons of light.
Anything that broke out of routine remains imprinted on my brain. I have no trouble recalling the camping trips and vacations, the holiday celebrations, the quirky houseguests, the backyard barbecues, ice cream socials, hikes and canoe trips, weddings and funerals, parties and concerts, the various house renovations and other projects that we've embarked on over the years. Everything else is faint. One could say, then, that it's fun or out-of-the-ordinary events that make time slow down because it creates highly visible markers along the highway of one's memory.
Catherine Price writes about this forgettability of sameness (my own term) in The Power of Fun: How to Feel Alive Again: "Not only will navigating your life on autopilot leave you with fewer memories, it will actually make time seem to speed up." Price explains that this phenomenon has a name, "dissociation", which I was excited to learn because it's always fun to discover official labels for hard-to-describe feelings I've had.
Screens are an especially powerful trigger for dissociation. Price quotes tech addiction expert David Greenfield, who says, "That's what's happening when you look up from your phone and have no idea where the last forty-five minutes of your life have gone." It's far too easy to start scrolling and lose track of time entirely. I find that to be a very scary feeling.
While doomscrolling on a device fritters away one's minutes and hours, it is a microcosm of a broader problem, which is that far too many people are willing to let time pass them by—and then complain about how quickly the years are flying by. Price writes, "When you fill your schedule with routines, habits, and passive consumption, your memories will arrange themselves in a smooth chain of indistinguishable links, with very little to help you tell where one day ended and another began."
What's needed are more opportunities for “pattern separation,” which Price says is another way of saying to break up monotony. When you start sprinkling fun, exciting, or challenging experiences ("small rebellions") into your life, you swap out that smooth, indistinguishable chain for "the equivalent of a necklace made of colorful beads, each of which holds the potential to become, in the words of Johan Huizinga, 'a treasure to be retained by the memory.' The more distinct these beads are (and the more beads you collect each day), the more time will seem to slow down."
I loved that analogy of the necklace, but there are real chemicals at play, too. Novelty, rebellion, and fun are all dopamine triggers, which most of us know as the feel-good hormone. Dopamine is also crucial in the formation of memories and retention of activities worth repeating, making it a “salience indicator.” This means that every time we have a positive experience doing something different, the "ensuing dopamine jolt will reinforce the idea that trying new things is worth repeating in general." This boosts confidence and motivates a person to try new things in the future because it feels good.
This is a long-winded way of saying that if, like me, you sometimes feel as though time is flying by at a panic-inducing speed, making an effort to do interesting things on a regular basis can go a long way toward slowing it down. And putting down the devices to engage in the real world can help a lot. Choose conscious consumption over passive, always asking yourself why you're picking up your phone instead of turning to it just because you're bored or running on default mode. No doubt it will always provide distraction, but at what cost? How much of life are you willing to trade for some fleeting entertainment?
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