I’m quickly approaching my 31st birthday, which is depressing, though not nearly as much as 30 was. But there’s nothing I can do about aging. I have gray hairs, and I get heartburn if I eat the wrong thing. I also can’t do anything to prevent death; that’s inevitable. But I can do the next best thing: I can live longer by traveling more.
Have you ever wondered why the older you get, the faster life seems to fly by? It doesn’t really. An hour is still an hour and a year is still a year. Time doesn’t change, but your perception of it does.
I was a psychological researcher a few lifetimes ago, so you’ll have to forgive me if I get a little technical.
Our perception of how long something lasts is closely linked to how much effort it takes the brain to process the memory. When something is very new, we spend more time analyzing and processing that information, making us feel like the experience lasted a very long time. That’s why when you’re in Asia for the first time in your life, three days can feel like a month. It’s like hitting pause on the passage of time to let your brain process the sights, sounds, and taste of a new place.
By comparison, when you’re doing the same thing at work every day for weeks, you get to June and think, “Wow. Where did the year go?” That’s because for most of us, regular life involves being around the familiar, the things that don’t require a lot of brain power. You know your way home so well, that you probably don’t even remember how you get there some days. And unless you’re at a new job, you’ve probably been doing the same thing for months or years, day in day out. And because there’s nothing new for your brain to process, in the grand scheme of things, all those repetitive days fly by in the blink of an eye.
You know what doesn’t? Trying to figure out how to use the metro in Bangkok or seeing a geyser erupt for the first time in your life. Because those aren’t the kinds of things we experience every day, so they’re memorable. We create more detailed perceptions of anything that is new, so we have a longer lasting impression.
When I got my first job and I had five measly vacation days a year, I would take weekend trips all the time. Sometimes I would fly out Friday after work and fly in Monday morning, and go straight to the office from the airport. People would always tell me, “Wow aren’t you exhausted?” And yes, I was definitely exhausted. But while their weekend came and went in two seconds, I lived the hell out of my weekends.
But more importantly, I made those weekends memorable enough to last me a lifetime. I can’t say I remember much of what I did at my job my first year of work. But I do remember that I went to Niagara Falls that year. And Mardi Gras and Atlanta and San Francisco and Seattle and Texas and Montreal. And God, I still think about how good the food was in Montreal. Because it was new and different. If I didn’t have photographic evidence, even I wouldn’t believe that was all in one year.
In big or small ways, you can capitalize on your brain’s natural functioning to extend the life you have. Which is how traveling makes you live longer. Thinking of going to the same amusement park again for the 4th time this year? Skip the annual passes, and go somewhere new. It’ll last longer. Instead of giving your favorite movie another re-watch, go to a park you’ve never seen. And if you have the opportunity, fly 30 hours to the farthest possible place you can think of. It’ll make your life feel a little longer and a lot fuller.
I may be almost 31 in chronological time, but every time I take a trip, I live another year.