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COLUMBUS, Ohio — When you’re on vacation, does it feel like you just arrived at your destination — and it’s already time to leave? A new study finds your brain really does perceive time as passing faster during certain activities. However, just like the old saying “time flies when you’re having fun,” researchers from The Ohio State University say it only applies to positive events.

Study co-author Selin Malkoc looked at how people perceive time when they’re anticipating either a positive or negative event to arrive. For positive events, like an upcoming vacation, researchers say people judge these activities to be farther away than they really are. For instance, someone’s trip to Hawaii may be a week away, but to them, it feels like a month away. Moreover, people also feel as if happy events like a vacation last for a much shorter time than unhappy ones.

“The seemingly endless wait for the vacation to start combined with the feeling that the vacation will fly by leads people to feel like the beginning and the end of their time off as similarly far from the present,” says Malkoc, an associate professor of marketing at Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business, in a university release.

“In other words, in their mind’s eye, the vacation is over as soon as it begins. It has no duration.”

Bad times really do seem to drag on and on

On the other hand, researchers discovered negative events have the complete opposite effect on the human mind. People anticipating the start of an unpleasant activity, like a dreaded work meeting, feel as if the event will begin any minute. They also perceive time as passing much more slowly, dragging out the event even longer.

Strangely, study authors discovered these opposite effects actually mean people feel as if both happy and unhappy events will end at the same time! However, how people arrived at those two polar opposite situations is a completely different story.

“Thinking about future positive and negative events leads people to take two different paths to the same conclusion, with the ends of both events seeming similarly far away,” explains study co-author Gabriela Tonietto from Rutgers Business School.

Vacation is over already? I just got here!

Researchers looked at four different studies examining how people view the passage of time in various situations. In one report, scientists asked 451 participants to think about an upcoming weekend.

These individuals were expecting their time off to either be fun, terrible, or simply OK. With that in mind, each person marked how far away they felt the beginning and end of their weekends were on a scale from zero (very near) to 100 (very far).

Results show people expecting to have a great weekend felt their fun was much farther away and would last only a short time. On the scale, these participants placed the start and end of their weekends in almost the same spot. In fact, 46 percent of people preparing for a fun weekend felt it had no duration at all.

Conversely, participants thinking about a terrible weekend believed it was much closer to the present day and would last much longer. Unsurprisingly, an average weekend fell in between.

When time flies, people spend more money?

Malkoc says thinking about both the start and the end of an event is a key part of this phenomenon. When participants in these studies only considered how long a fun activity would last, people believed the event would last longer. It’s only when people start thinking about how long they have to wait for their fun to start that the time of these activities seems to fly by.

Study authors believe their findings could even affect how people plan for future vacations as the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

“If a vacation seems like it is going to end as soon as it begins, it may make people less likely to plan specific events during their time off,” Malkoc concludes. “It may also lead people to spend more on hotels and other luxuries, since it seems like the vacation is such a short time anyway.”

The study appears in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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