While every minute has 60 seconds and every hour has 60 minutes, our perception of time can change, making some minutes feel like hours and some hours feel like minutes. In a fascinating experiment, Leah Campbell and Richard Bryant, studied how first-time skydivers perceived time in relation to their first jump (detailed in their creatively titled article, “How time flies: A study of novice skydivers”). Divers who felt afraid reported that the experience took longer than it did in reality, and divers who felt excited reported that the event took shorter than it actually did. Time drags on when we are afraid and really does fly when we are having fun. Yet, Philip Gable and Bryan Poole present an important caveat to the adage. Just being content or satisfied doesn’t necessarily make time seem fast, but rather, fun or excitement in the pursuit of a goal is what makes time fly (as summed up in their creatively titled paper, “Time flies when you’re having approach-motivated fun”).
Yaakov, who loved Rachel very deeply, offered to work seven years for her father Lavan, so that he could marry her. How would you predict the passage of time would feel if you had to wait seven years before marrying the person you loved? Presumably, for most of us, those seven years would drag on and feel like “forever.” Interestingly, we are given a glimpse into Yaakov’s subjective time perception when the verse states, “they seemed to him but a few days (“ke-yamim achadim”) because of his love for her (Bereishit 29:20). Somehow, the seven years “flew by” for Yaakov, which flies in the face of our hypothesis that the seven years would feel excruciatingly slow.
In fact, Rabbi Moshe Alshich is so convinced that because of Yaakov’s love and longing for Rachel, “every day would feel like a thousand years,” that he contends that it is only in retrospect that he could say that the time went by quickly. During the seven years it was painful and agonizing. It is only afterwards, that the power of his love and connection to Rachel made him forget the excruciating anguish of the wait time.
Other commentaries disagree. They assume that Yaakov’s perception of the seven years was quick, even while he was still waiting. Abarbanel suggests that Yaakov’s love for Rachel was so great that he thought that seven years was a great deal for him; he would have been ready and willing to spend even more time in pursuit of her. Consequently, the time frame did not seem daunting for him and he went through it with a positive mindset. Similarly, Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal) suggests that his love for Rachel infused each day with peace, enjoyment, and hope. It is pain, discomfort, and negative emotions that make time seem longer, but peace and positive emotions make time fly by.
Chatam Sofer approaches it not from an emotional standpoint, but from a goal-oriented perspective. Only someone who is waiting for time to pass would feel that time is slow. However, to Yaakov’s credit, despite the fact that he loved her so much, he was able to treat each day with the proper reverence, taking advantage of his time, acting productively, and being mindful of his task each day. Rabbi Aharon Kotler takes the concept one step further. Not only did Yaakov not squander his time, he used the time to actively work towards a goal. He knew that he still needed to develop himself personally and spiritually in order to build a family and fulfill the destiny that was outlined in his dream. He used this time to continue to cultivate his strengths
Combining the approaches together, we learn from Yaakov two essential ingredients for leading a purposeful and engaged life that doesn’t feel like it is dragging on: savor the experience of positive emotions while simultaneously planning and implementing meaningful goals.