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Time Flies When We're Getting What We Want

Update Date: Aug 21, 2012 04:35 PM EDT

You know the old adage "Time flies when we're having fun?" Well, turns out there is more than just nostalgic remonstration.

New research published in the August 2012 Journal issue of Psychological Science suggests that the familiar adage may really be true, with a small caveat: time flies when we're getting what we want.

While existing studies demonstrate that experiencing positive feelings or states makes us feel like time is passing faster than negative feelings and states do, reason dictates that not all positive states, such as contentment or serenity, are created equal.

More specifically, time flies when there is 'approach motivation' -- emotions that motivate us to continue what we are doing, without regard for time.

In an experiment where hungry individuals were shown pictures with alternating levels of approach motivation (Neutral, positive with low approach and positive with high approach) for short and long periods of time (from 400 ms to 1600 ms), researchers 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 (lowering their approach motivation for food) judged the dessert pictures as having been displayed for longer periods of time than their hungrier peers. Their findings were further supported by a follow-up experiment in which half of the participants were told they would be able to eat the deserts shown and the other half were just told to look at the pictures.

The former group experienced "shorter" wait time than the latter group.

Psychological scientists Philip Gable and Bryan Pool of the University of Alabama who conducted the study believed that "this feeling that time is somehow shorter seems to be the specific result of our desire to approach or pursue something, not a more general effect of heightened attention or physiological arousal," as stated in a report by the Association for Psychological Sciences.

The researchers note that high approach-motivation states make us feel like time is passing quickly namely because they narrow our memory and attention processes, helping us to shut out irrelevant thoughts and feelings.

Gable concludes, "Although we tend to believe that time flies when we're having a good time-- "it seems to be the goal pursuit or achievement-directed action we're engaged in those matters. Just being content or satisfied may not make time fly, but being excited or actively pursuing a desired object can."

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