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When I was a child, I loved going to the beach with my parents and the family dogs. My mum and dad enjoyed the time less so, knowing I’d come back messier than our furry friends.

I had a tendency to explore the beach and the surrounding parks from the dogs’ perspectives – adults seemed to be a dull bunch, seemingly unaware of all the interesting stuff going on all around us.

Our four-legged foragers would lead me to all kinds of interesting spots. It was great to run wild without being bound by boring rules designed to spoil all the fun that was to be had.

Of course, as I grew older, this kind of activity became something confined to the past as I started to experience the world through the eyes of an adult. When we had time, my friends and I would become nostalgic, asking ourselves why time seemed to speed up these days. Summer breaks used to feel endless. Now, a year passes by in the blink of an eye.

This week I came across an interesting article in a psychology magazine that addressed this topic. It asked: Why is it that, for children, time feels slower compared to time as experienced by adults?

According to American cognitive scientist, Douglas Hofstadter, adults experience time as going faster due to our tendency to “chunk” our experiences. This means that we view situations and events as one whole. Children don’t live like this. Instead, they experience life as a bunch of discrete moments within single experiences.

To use my trips to the beach as an example, as a child I loved to explore my surroundings. There was so much to see. Were the jellyfish out today? What kind of seashells might I find? How much does the sea keep to itself, and why does it wash up only some things but not others? How do my dogs experience their exploration? And why do they sniff each other so much?

These were just some of the questions that would flood my curious mind. A simple walk on the beach felt like a treasure hunt at times. Within that one trip, there was so much to do, so much to find so many questions to consider.

As I grew up, a walk along the beach became just that – a walk. The curiosity was no longer there. I still loved the peacefulness of the beach and enjoyed learning about marine life, but I had forgotten the importance of being curious about my surroundings. Learning had become tied to purpose rather than the joy of discovering something new.

It’s not that there’s nothing new to learn about life as we grow older – far from it.

We just seem to stop looking at life with the curiosity of a child. When we slow down and pay more attention, whether it be to the flowers in the garden or the creatures that visit our homes from time to time, the pleasure of life is enhanced. For a moment, we remind ourselves that the point of life is to experience and enjoy all it has to show us.

In his book, The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes, “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.” What a sad thing it is that many of us adults become rigid in our thinking and forget to play and explore.

We become desensitised to the simple things in life – the things that once brought us so much happiness. In fact, almost all of the business leaders and public figures I’ve spoken to over the years talk about “happier times” when they were younger.

They miss the element of playful exploration that once fuelled their imagination, as they reminisce about climbing trees and swimming in lakes with their friends.

So, how can we reclaim the delight of our childhood? The authors of the psychology article suggest that by taking a more mindful approach to life, we can “re-sensitise” ourselves to life’s simple pleasures, and counteract the feeling of time going by too quickly.

Perhaps the issue isn’t time that speeds up. Maybe the reason we feel like we have less time as adults is we forget to slow down and have fun once in a while.

In an attempt to practise what I preach, I’ve tried to slow down a little over the past month or so. While there’s still plenty of busyness and rushing around, I try to carve out time to spend with friends, or play with the dogs, or simply sit and enjoy reading a book. When I manage to slow down a little, I feel rejuvenated, and there’s something else that I notice.

When the mind is allowed to slow down, I find that I have more time. I think this is because, by taking a timeout now and again, I’m enjoying more of the time I have and so waste less of it.

As a result, when I return to my “adult” commitments, I become more productive and engaged.

My seven-year-old self would have been furious to think that his 35-year-old self would ever fail to see the joy and pleasure in life’s simple moments. That said, I hope he’ll be happier to know that I’m trying hard to relearn the wisdom found in children and in dogs.


Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, e-mail star2@thestar.com.my.

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