Vacation Time Warp: The “Holiday Paradox” Explained

Illustration by Carolyn Duan

When you go home on December 15th, the last day of winter finals, you will breath of huge sigh of relief. You will think to yourself “I finally made it through first semester. I finished all my exams. No more studying. No more cramming. No more homework.” You will look at the calender and see that you have over two weeks all to yourself. You are free to relax and enjoy your time away from school. But then, POOF! It’s all gone.  

You wake up and see that it is January 3rd, the first day of second semester. Now you must trudge back to school for a long second semester. You wonder “What happened to my precious vacation? I feel like it just started.” This perceived time distortion has come to be known as the “holiday paradox”, theorized by psychology lecturer Claudia Hammond.

Why Time Seems to Pass So Quickly

According to Hammond, time will seem to go by rapidly when you are doing something enjoyable or interesting as opposed to something boring or stressful. At a school like Monta Vista, with high levels of stress, many students can relate to what this feels like, including sophomore Yingkai Lee.

Lee expressed that time during his holiday vacation feels like it passes several times faster. The main reason behind this is the difference in mood that is created by the contrasting atmospheres of vacation and school. As Lee stated, vacation time is “a lot less stressful, since [he] can stay home and game as much as [he] want[s].” Students are given the opportunity to do whatever activity they enjoy. For Lee, these include gaming and orchestra camp.

Whether it be travelling, watching movies, or just reading a book, these activities are what elicit emotions that cause the apparent time distortion. When asked to describe his typical vacation experience using some adjectives, Lee used the words like “fun”, “enjoyable”, “joyful”, and “relaxing”. Evidently, the mind is in a pleasant atmosphere, and it is focused on making the most of that moment and it is not particularly attentive of the passage of time.

Lee’s response about school atmosphere was in stark contrast, as he emphasized a word we are all too familiar with: “stressful”. A perfect example of this stress is created by finals week, which is fast approaching. Final exams require hours of studying – which mean hours of anxiety. As finals week arrives, you feel as though you would rather do anything but spend 2 hours taking a test that could decide your semester grade. It’s as though it’s the last thing you would want to do.

Since the mind is trapped in such an unpleasant atmosphere, it is focused on how much more time must pass until the nightmarish task is finished. Life Noggin, an informative science channel, addresses this topic in its video “Why Time Flies When You’re Having Fun”.

According to the video, your perception of the time passage is dependent on how much attention you pay to it. Your mind would pay extra attention to time during a boring study session, making it seem like the clock is ticking slower and slower.  Likely, you want to get past final exams and into holiday break as soon as possible, but feeling like this will only make these next few weeks feel even longer.

Although this perceived time distortion is heightened before and during holiday vacation, it also applies throughout the school year. That is why Mondays seem to last foreveryou want it to be the weekend right now, but it is actually several days away. But once the weekend finally arrives, it seems to be over in the blink of an eye.

The Other Side of the “Holiday Paradox”

Fast forward a few months to April. You think back to holiday vacation and remember everything you did. You recall travelling to New York, watching the new Star Wars movie with your friends, and celebrating New Year’s Day with your family. But now, it seems as though it lasted an eternity. Then you think about your entire first semester – it feels like it went by very quickly.

Hammond explained that this is because of how your memory functioned differently during these two time periods. If you were to randomly take a week from the middle of first semester, it is probable that you do not have specific memories from that time. Since you were just following your typical routine, with nothing particularly memorable taking place, you do not remember very much.

In fact, your mind only stores between 6 and 9 memories every two weeks during a period of time with minimal special activity. So in retrospect, first semester seems to have passed very fast, due to your lack of memories from that time.

However, you would have many more memories from your vacation, because it consisted of events outside of your normal routine. Most likely, you would have a clear memory of all of those fun and enjoyable activities that you did. Having a lot of memories from holiday break would make it seem like you did a lot, which in turn makes its duration seem much longer.

Does Time Really Fly When You Are Having Fun?

For most people, vacation is fun – and many believe that this is all that can make time go by faster. However, according to a study done by Anthony Chaston and Alan Kingstone at the University of Alberta, this is not always true. Chaston and Kingstone claim that if an individual is highly engaged with a difficult task, time will seem to pass faster. In the study, test subjects were tasked with locating a certain object, and the difficulty of the task was changed throughout the experiment, which in turn increased the attentiveness of the subject.

Chaston also acknowledged the two different ways the body keeps track of time: prospective estimation – when the subject was told in advance to monitor the passage of time – and retrospective estimation – when the subject was asked after the task how much time had passed, without any prior notice. This study dealt with prospective estimation.

The results indicated that the subject had to divide his/her attention between completing the task and keeping track of the how much time had passed. As a result, the subjects, who were engrossed in the task, underestimated how long they took to finish the activity.

This can apply to life at school. While taking a very difficult test, the clock will seem to tick a lot faster because of how focused you are. However, when you take a relatively easy test and turn it in early, it will seem like class is lasting forever. This is what Chaston and Kingstone sought to prove in their study – that the saying “Time flies when you are having fun” is not completely true.

How to Deal With the Time Warp

Of course, there is no way you can change the way your memory functions. All that you can control are that memories that you give it. As for your vacation, just remember to make the most out of it. The holiday season only comes around once a year, and there are only a few vacations to enjoy throughout the school year. So even if it doesn’t feel very long, you will be able to make memories that last long.

When it comes to dealing like the strenuous weeks of the school year, make those memorable as well. They may seem like they never end, but years from now, it will seem like they all passed by in a heartbeat.