Your Future Self Needs Your Help
When you imagine your life five, ten or twenty years down the road, who are you? Is your future self the woman you are today, just with more wrinkles and perhaps a different mailing address? Or does your future self feel like an entirely different person, someone you haven’t met yet?
Neither scenario benefits you, now or in the future.
Your Future Self Isn’t an Older You
Several bloggers have recently been writing their responses to the age-old question, “Who am I?” Psychologist Dan Gilbert would want to amend the question to read, “Who am I now?”
Gilbert, a researcher in the psychology of personality, claims that one of life’s most damaging myths is the belief that we have recently stopped changing and will be who we are forevermore.
In his TED talk about the psychology of your future self, Gilbert explains that change does slow down as we age, but nowhere near as much as we think. Gilbert claims that over the next ten years, our personalities will change. So will our likes and dislikes, some of our values, and many current preferences such as our favourite kinds of music or where we want to vacation.
Gilbert’s research might feel wrong to you. If so, think back to your priorities of ten years ago and contrast them to today. When we look back, we can see how time has shaped who we are now. Yet we have difficulty believing that time is going to shape who we are in the future. Gilbert suggests that this is probably because it is easier to remember than it is to imagine.
Your Future Self Isn’t a Different Person
Let’s try to imagine, starting with your next birthday. You can likely picture the scene, right down to the kind of cake you’ll be enjoying.
Now try imagining your birthday in ten or twenty years. Hal Hershfield, a lead researcher in the field of your future self, predicts that you will likely be an observer to that scene, imagining yourself as another person who is enjoying your favourite cake.
When you imagine that you are the same as your future self, you overestimate the stability of your current preferences. This can lead to playing life safe, to staying firmly ensconced in your comfort zone.
When you imagine that your future self is a different person, you are likely to privilege today over tomorrow. Hershfield’s research shows that, when it comes to money, viewing your future self as a different person results in immediate gratification (a bit of money now) versus long-term interests (accepting a larger amount of money later).
Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting, as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been.Dan Gilbert
Who is Your Future Self?
So if your future self is important, but she is neither an older you nor an entirely different person, who is she?
Gilbert suggests that we extrapolate. Think of your future self as your personality today, altered by your best guess of the consequences of today’s habits and actions over time.
Hershfield suggests that if your future self feels like a different person, make it a different person you would care about and make sacrifices for, just as you’d do for your spouse, children, or aging parents.
Note that neither researcher is suggesting that you imagine a perfect future self living a perfect life. Nor are they asking you to live focused solely on the future. Rather, it’s about a healthy balance between present and future. The goal is to live the best version of yourself, both now and later.
Four Ways to Help Your Future Self
- Write a letter to your future self, explaining how the actions you are taking today will make your life better years down the road. If you wish to have the letter delivered to you at a future date, you can post it on futureme.org.
- Have a conversation with your future self. Just as blogger Cathi writes wonderful dialogues between herself and inanimate objects, you can write a dialogue with your future self. I’ve done this many times and am always amazed by what I learn.
- Imagine yourself in the future, as vividly and with as much detail as you possibly can. Hershfield’s research shows that when people were exposed to age-enhanced images of themselves, they saved almost twice as much money as those who didn’t have the benefit of seeing their future selves.
- Give yourself permission to try new things and have new experiences. It’s exciting to see many of the retired bloggers I follow embracing their newfound freedom to experiment.
Can you see your future self? What are you doing to help her?