Is Time Just an Illusion? How Our View of Time Steals Our Joy

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Solve for Happy" by Mo Gawdat. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is time just an illusion? Is it objective or subjective? How does our perception of time impact our happiness?

According to Mo Gawdat, the idea that time exists independently of us is wrong. He argues that time isn’t an objective feature of reality. The more we realize that, he says, the more we can focus on the present and find happiness.

Continue reading to understand Gawdat’s argument, as presented in his book Solve for Happy.

Is Time Just an Illusion?

To defend his position, Gawdat offers two related arguments. First, he observes that the subjective experience of time differs from person to person. For instance, if you’re in the middle of a workout, you’ll perceive time as passing slowly, while your friend at a party might perceive it as passing quicker. If time were objective, we shouldn’t expect these subjective differences.

(Shortform note: In a similar vein, research indicates that we perceive time as passing more quickly as we age. In particular, children lay down more “memory frames” per second than adults, so their memories contain more visual information relative to adults’ memories. Because their brains capture more mental information per unit of time, children perceive time as passing more slowly.) 

Second, Gawdat appeals to Einstein’s theory of relativity, which holds that time exists alongside space in a four-dimensional structure called spacetime. According to relativity, time’s passage relative to an object varies based on factors like the object’s velocity and gravitational forces. Thus, twin siblings would age at different rates if one sibling were on Earth while another were moving at a high velocity in outer space. Because relativity views time as malleable, Gawdat concludes that it’s incompatible with our rigid conception of time.

(Shortform note: Although Gawdat cites Einstein’s theory of relativity as evidence that time is illusory, others have argued that relativity theory is consistent with our common conception of time. They suggest that time moves linearly within individual frames of reference; since our frame of reference is mostly fixed, it’s true that time moves linearly for us. At the least, then, relativity theory doesn’t decisively prove that time is illusory.)

By realizing that our understanding of time is illusory, we can avoid the suffering that understanding causes. For instance, we treat the past and the future as real entities, and our thoughts about them cause suffering—we regret past misfortunes and dread future decisions. Instead, we can focus on what’s real: the present.

The Benefits of Thinking Positively About the Future

Despite Gawdat’s claim that thinking about the future causes us to suffer, others have argued that letting our mind positively ruminate on the future has numerous benefits. In particular, studies show that these benefits include:

Improved decision making: Identifying with our future self prevents short-term bias, where we irrationally favor present goods over future rewards.

Increased motivation to reach our goals: Having positive expectations for future weight loss made participants more likely to lose weight.

Improved psychological well-being: Positively journaling about the future can be healing for trauma victims.

Because these studies all involve positive thoughts about the future, however, we shouldn’t conclude that all thinking about the future is beneficial. For instance, the same weight-loss study listed above concluded that those with negative expectations about the future were least likely to lose weight. In turn, we can distinguish between future-oriented thoughts which lead to suffering and those which lead to flourishing. 
Is Time Just an Illusion? How Our View of Time Steals Our Joy

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Mo Gawdat's "Solve for Happy" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Solve for Happy summary:

  • The six misconceptions that cause us to suffer
  • How to remove the seven weaknesses that hinder your happiness
  • The five pillars to becoming permanently happy

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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