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.

So What?

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

 

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62 comments

    1. And I’ll bet that you get the most amazingly intelligent and thoughtful answers when you talk to yourself, Cathi. πŸ™‚ By the way, I love your dialogues. It’s never a hardship to recommend them to others.

  1. I hate the letter to yourself thing (just a personal idiosyncrasy of mine). But I don’t think I need to. When I look back fifteen years, what I saw in my future wasn’t really different from where I am now. Sure, there are things that aren’t how I thought they’d be, but I think I always see my future more in terms of emotion rather than a material sense. Looking forward (when I’ll be an empty nester and heading more into my senior years) I picture a totally different life than the one I have now, but it isn’t so much the life as the emotion again. Yeah, I’m weird, but I already know that grin.

    1. Hi AJ. The researchers would tell you that you have ‘future self continuity’ which is a very good thing. So no, not weird at all!
      And a confession – I’m not a fan of the letter to yourself thing either. I don’t mind writing about the future in my journal, but the ‘Dear Karen’ stuff turns me off.

  2. “Who am I now”, indeed!

    A couple of months ago I started drafting a blog post (for my July birthday), looking back at everything that has happened to me over the past decade. Staggering. Although the core of me has stayed the same, I am a different person to who I was 10 years ago. I could not have foreseen most of what has happened between then and now. Nor how I changed over that time period.

    To think that my future self will be my now self, only with more…ahem…mileage, would be doing myself a huge disservice. Here’s to our glorious future selves as we continue to learn, change and grow!

    Thanks, Karen!

  3. Karen, I often think about the woman I am becoming. So yes, I do believe my future self is different than now…and now is definitely different than 5 years ago!

    One of the things I did as part of retirement visioning was write 5 short stories about my future self in 5 years (looking back as to how I got there), each picking a different element of my desired retirement lifestyle. I need to go find them and see how things are 3 years later! And maybe do it again. It’s kinda #3, but for me it actually helps me not delay things. Delaying things often means not spending money now (delaying gratification for someday)… I need to switch from save mode to spend mode, just a bit!

    1. I like your short story idea, Pat, far more than the letter to self idea actually. It will be so interesting for you to do a comparison. Interesting and maybe blog post(s) worthy?
      By the way, if you’re a saver, I definitely vote for a switch to spend mode. It’s great fun and the perfect time of life for a little bit of giving yourself something you’ve long desired.

      1. Thanks for the idea about the blog post… great one. I’m off to find the original stories at least.

        And I’m definitely in spending mode (for me) – having an open house BBQ this weekend (our first ever in the new house – 40 people possibly…and weather now says possible rain… oh dear), and the car shopping next couple of weeks (I’ve gotten in down to 4 possible to test drive… I hate car shopping). ACK! No… Life is good.

  4. Hi Karen. This is very interesting to me. Ever since my husband was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer 5 1/2 years ago, I have struggled with the future me. Thinking about the future without him feels like a betrayal, especially when I look at it in a healthy, transformitive way. Isn’t that ironic?

    Even the mundane things are painful. For example, My great aunt recently died and we are supposed to get some of her furniture. our home is rather small, so adding 2 dressers and 4 chairs that had been my great grandparents’ seems a little daunting. So to be practical I mentioned that when my husband dies, I will put one of the dressers in the closet. As soon as I said it, I felt awful. Days later, I still feel awful.

    I can see myself doing all sorts of things 10 years down the line, but the person I will be at that time is also a widow. While I can imagine it, I’m not ready to embrace that. So, instead, I try to think of the things I can do as a result of my kids moving out. Now that’s a change I can get behind. πŸ˜‰ I love them dearly, but these teen years are tough.

    You have given me a lot to think about. And I will work on the 4 ways I can help my future self. even when things are difficult to do, they are still important, sometimes more so. Have a wonderful week!

    1. Hi Heather. My dad lived with me. In the last ten years of his life, he had vascular dementia. What was once a witty and phenomenally intelligent and creative man turned into a paranoid, delusional and angry shell. I not only thought about the future me without him in my house, I dreamt of it as an escape. And even though he was my dad and not my spouse, thinking this way felt like a betrayal. I think it always does. I think it’s just part of the grieving process that has to be gotten through.

      I understand about the mundane things. We want to be such superb caregivers, pouring limitless love and energy into the person we love who is dying. When we slip up and show ourselves to be less than absolutely selfless and perfect, we feel awful. There are things that haunt me today, 3 1/2 years after his death, and they are mostly the mundane things – moments when I was abrupt, annoyed, dismissive, angry. I suspect that’s part of the grieving process too, but it’s a part that, if we embrace it, can lead to the transformative change you were mentioning because ultimately we’re going to come to greater SELF-compassion and kindness. There’s a big, big need for that, Heather. Between your husband’s illness and your teens and your work, you are carrying the world on your shoulders. You won’t truly realize how much for a while.

      You’re going through an inferno, Heather. The future self that emerges on the other side of that inferno is going to be a woman who continues to be strong and loving and brave. But she’s also a woman who will again know a peaceful, compassionate and creative life. She is you forged by experience and she is amazing.

  5. Hi Karen! I love the work of Dan Gilbert and the direction you’ve taken with this post. Much of his work focuses on the fact that we aren’t very good at predicting what will make us happy in the future…because like you say, most of us think we will be the same in the future as we are now. Thankfully I MOSTLY remember that and adjust accordingly. I also look back and see how many times I have changed (mostly for the better) from where I was 5 or 10 or more years ago. I could never have predicted many of the amazing turns in my life so I’m holding out the fact that I will continue that in the future and keep on adventuring. Of course, how we look at it likely has to do whether we have a “growth mindset” or a “fixed mindset” as I’ve written about before…I think you have too? Either way, good to remember that our future is either by design or default. I prefer design! ~Kathy

    1. Future by design or default is the perfect phrase, Kathy. I’m loving the fact that my most recent changes, especially post-retirement, have been positive ones in the direction of significant growth and change. With a strong growth mindset and, hopefully, continued good health, that augers well for a terrific future self.

  6. I think future me is going to be an even better person than current me – I feel like I’m growing and changing, my mind is looking for new interests, I feel more compassionate, and more invested in growing spiritually. I want to become the best version of myself as possible. Future me doesn’t need to hear from current me – she knows what’s gone before and is happily enjoying all the hard work I’ve been putting in to become her πŸ™‚

    1. What a great way to look at your life, Leanne! You sound inspired and that is inspiring. I feel exactly the same as you. Thanks for putting it into words.

  7. The last bit of my ‘old self’ I let go of was feeling that I was responsible for my children’s happiness and success. I HAD to help them, advise them, weigh in. Now, I don’t. I discuss and commiserate but in the end, it is all about them.

    The letter to a future self: My daughter did that when she joined the Naval Academy. They wanted all those bright-eyed future warriors to know why they thought this path was the right one because it would be darn difficult before they got there!

    1. I’m going to need to find out how you managed that, Jacqui. Although I don’t have children, I feel enormous responsibility for some extended family members as if they were in fact my kids. It’s something that needs to change and change NOW.

  8. Hi, Karen – I always feel positive (and a bit excited) about discovering the future me. It’s a bit like slowly unwrapping a present. I do definitely view my future self as the same me…but with different circumstances and some evolution. I try hard today to ensure that the future is as positive as I can possibly make it — not only for myself but for all whom I hold dear.

    1. That’s a nice image, Donna- slowly unwrapping a present. It sounds as if you’ve got the best of both worlds going on – recognizing your future self as you, and caring for your current and future self in part because you care for others.

  9. What an interesting post! I think two things that I am β€œgifting” to my older self is a healthy body (exercise and healthy eating) and memories of wonderful travel adventures. I hope to be doing the same sorts of things 5 – 10 years from now (and longer) but both health and a curious spirit will serve me well into the future.

    1. Those are two very significant gifts, Janis. They are the ancient Greeks’ “healthy mind in a healthy body.” What more could a self want, current or future?

  10. This is thought provoking. I have no trouble with understanding that my future self is not exactly as I am now but older. If anything, I tend to live with a future perspective and I imagine the future self will be vastly improved over my current self. I am on a constant learning and growth process, so in no way will I be exactly the same. I do want to create my future self and work at becoming a better version of myself. I have made drastic improvements in my health, and am trying to live in the present rather than saving up all the fun stuff for “someday.” My mother died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack at 71. I learned from that experience that my future is not a given, and that the time to be who I want to be and live how I want to live is now. My husband and I just booked an impulse trip to Savannah next week. I have always wanted to visit Savannah, and I realized next week was a good week so off we go. I would NEVER have done something so impulsive a few years ago.

    1. I’m sorry that your mom died so young and so unexpectedly, Michele. It’s wise of you to have taken the lessons from that tragedy to make your current and future life healthier and richer. I hope you have a wonderful time in Savannah.

  11. I hope future me is healthy and active so I need to keep body and brain well exercised to make that last as long as possible. Once I get to 20 years down the line future me will also start being grateful still to be around!

    1. You’ve forged that link between current you and future you, Anabel. I still think of future me as far off in the distance and that gives me license to procrastinate on the well exercised body. I’m going to try to follow your example!

  12. I just finished sorting out the “Who Am I?” question for the prologue of my memoir. I do like the addition of the word “now” because it implies the growth that was necessary to get to where I am right now. Now you have me thinking of what I will be ten years from now!

    I do love this quote,

    “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.”

    For my prologue, I talked about experiences, actions and decisions that influenced who I became. I also included the people whom I dealt with either in a positive or negative way that helped to form who I am. I feel that all that we do now, think about now and act on now will continue to add to that growth I mentioned earlier.

    1. I knew you were working on “Who am I” Fran, and I was hoping the addition of the word ‘now’ wouldn’t be too off-putting for you. Glad to see that it wasn’t.
      I hope you’re continuing to enjoy writing your memoir.

  13. Karen – given the number of iterations my adult life has taken, I have never thought of my future self as just an older version. I’ve been actively envisioning my ‘next chapter’ for several years now but recognize that my plans rarely materialize as exactly what I’ve envisioned or on my timeline – but I keep working towards the future me. I’ll keep up with #3 and #4 above and watch with wonder as it unfolds. Thanks for the reflective post!

    1. Hi Janet. I notice that several of us have a strongly future orientation. It doesn’t surprise me at all that you are part of that group. With the very wide variety of experiences you’ve had in your life, I imagine it sometimes feels as if each iteration is a separate lifetime.

  14. I think my future self will be someone I haven’t met yet…after all everything that I have been through thus far has shaped me into the person I am now. That means that as time passes and I get to eventually be my future self depending on what I have gone through up until then will shape who will be my future self. Since I don’t have a crystal ball to be able to know what will happen around me and to me in the interim it will be a surprise. πŸ˜‰

    1. Hi Susan. Interesting perspective. Your comment makes me think of Kathy’s comment above. If you believe that what happens to you will be a surprise, do you think that means that you see yourself as someone who lives life in the moment, as opposed to someone who designs what they would like to see in their life?

      1. Hi Karen, what an interesting question. I hope that I live my life in the moment. I very much want to live in the present. I don’t think I could design what I would like to see in my life – not only do I not know what I would like to see but my schedule doesn’t get much beyond a week into the future. I think I have my hands so full with the present To Do List that I am trying to work through that I don’t even take the time to daydream about how I want my life to be in the future…it just is – in the future, like I was saying – a surprise. LOL πŸ™‚

        1. Hi Susan. I spend so much of my time in the future, I find it difficult to even conceive of a life lived solidly in the present. Different strokes for different folks!

  15. Lots of food for thought, as usual, Karen. I have been dividing my projections between the past and the future and I fear this ruminating has put a damper on the present. I’m in a weird place – working part-time so not quite retired and much less invested in work since it is such a small part of my life now. I’m realizing that work was so much of my identity that I do need to reinvent myself and I approach it with both excitement and a little bit of fear. I like the idea of change and have embraced it throughout my life, so I don’t want to stay the same. But the fear comes in when I imagine future losses – whether it is people or functional status as I age. I am making plans to take a yoga class, and at age 65 can take classes at local university for free so have been looking through the course catalog. I’m not done yet and always want to keep learning. That is the part that is very exciting!

    1. I’m very similar, Molly. Sometimes I feel really annoyed with myself that I spend so much time in past and future. Sometimes I wonder if dwelling on promises of a glorious future makes it easier for me to ignore the present so that I don’t take care of myself as I should because I can always start that ‘tomorrow’.
      I don’t know how we resolve the imagining of future losses, but yoga classes and university courses sound to me like a really great place to start.

  16. Hi Karen. I have noticed that some people don’t really change that much over time. They seem rather stuck, which is too bad. Staying mentally curious and physically active goes a long way–I think of it as a kind of currency we can bank and draw on for future health and happiness. If life doesn’t throw any major curve balls, that is! (And doesn’t it always?) Like a few of your other readers, I find the hard part of thinking of the future is worrying about what could go wrong.

    I’m a couple of years away from being an empty-nester, and I would like to reinvent myself in that phase of my life. I think I will try the vivid imagining of my future self!

    1. Hi Jenny. Never having had a nest, I can’t say what life will be like when that nest is empty πŸ™‚ However, I can say that it sounds like a perfect opportunity for an exciting reinvention. I’m sure your vivid imagining of your future self will bear spectacular fruit!

      I like your analogy to currency we can bank on. Thanks.

  17. I thought that it was odd that I hadn’t heard from you yet this week, so I went looking for you. I found you lurking alone in my spam folder πŸ˜• … glad to have rescued you!

    I’m a firm believer that we continue to change as we age. There is no question in my mind that I’ve changed in the past 10 years and I expect I will continue to do so. As someone who embraces learning and experiencing new things, it’s impossible to not have it change me.

    1. Hi Joanne. I was thinking about you too and was missing your voice, but chalked your silence up to pre-wedding plans. Two weeks to go!
      Thank you so much for rescuing me and busting me out of spam prison.
      I so agree that we keep on changing and, if I’m not reading too much into your words, I love that fact too!

      1. I love it too. The big question – and one I’ve been pondering for some time – is how will I change over the next 10 years?
        I like the Joanne who’s emerged over the last 10. She’s calmer and more patient. I like that πŸ™‚

  18. What an interesting post, Karen. I must confess when I think of my future self, it is pretty much myself as I am today, just doing different things, which as you pointed out, is not realistic. I have changed so much just in the past two years, why would I expect to be the same person 10 years from now. Thanks for starting me thinking along these lines.

    1. Hi Christie. I think of myself the same as you do – a somewhat older version (I can’t visualize too far into the future) still doing most of what I do now. It will be an interesting challenge to envision some alternatives.

  19. When I was a child, I always imagined what i’d be like as an adult. As an adult, I hardly ever think of what I’ll be like in the future. Reading this, I can think of ways I could have been much better prepared, had a spent a little time thinking about it. Interesting, Karen, thank you!

  20. Interesting topic, Karen, as many (retired) people are trying to figure out who they are now or who they’ve become after losing their work identity. I see my future self as not too different from now, but also as not the same. I know my priorities (and my mailing address) will shift, as I face the future and gather more experiences. One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve grown older is that comfort has become more important. Luckily, adventure and comfort can be combined. Not having the funds for vacation and luxury is where the trouble lies. πŸ™‚

    1. I wonder if it’s more or less difficult for you to imagine your future than those of us with permanent mailing addresses? I often think about what it would be like to live your lifestyle, Liesbet, but my imagination isn’t one of my stronger qualities. I’m glad you have a blog so that I can learn about you that way.

  21. Hi Karen, thanks so much for linking up and sharing your thoughts at Midlife Share the Love Party. I feel I’m constantly changing and improving by learning and being inspired by other women such as yourself. I actually like who I am and can’t wait to get to know the person I become over the next decade. #MLSTL

  22. I have changed so much over the years that it is hard to tell who I will be in 10 years. Right now I am a worried wife waiting to see, Things can go a couple of different ways which will help determine who the future me is.

  23. I have always been a person who puts conditions in place that will allow my future self to thrive. Some examples of this include: getting a good education, choosing a profession that would allow me to make a good living, being frugal so that my family and I will have a more secure financial future, living a lifestyle in which I attend to exercise and nutrition, etc. So from this, you would probably think that I am a future oriented person, but I am not. I find it hard to imagine who I will be, where I will be living, and what I will be doing even five years from now (never mind ten years). I am very present oriented, focused on now, today, this week, this month. I also love change and new challenges and places. So I think my strategy of putting material and emotional supports in place for the future is a way of making sure that future me has lots of options open to go in whatever direction she feels like pursuing in the moment. That way, I can be opportunistic, ready to jump into a new pursuit, trip, or friendship if the opportunity arises. Looking back, my life pattern has included some pretty major zigzags.

    Jude

    1. Hi Jude,
      I remember that “keep your options open” was the primary advice I received at the start of high school, and of university. It also seems to be the perfect advice for your future self. After all, if our health suffers and we’re not around to enjoy the future all the rest is for naught. Same with finances. You’re wise, Jude.

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