Think about where you will be in ten years. Depending on your age, you might have a few extra wrinkles and grey hairs in addition to hoping for changes in your financial situation. But does the imagined version of yourself feel essentially very similar to the one you are right now? Or do they feel odd to you?
Research studies over the past 10 years have shown that people’s responses frequently vary greatly and disclose surprising details about their underlying behavioural patterns. Some people have a vivid image of their future selves that resembles their present selves in many ways. These people are more likely to manage their finances responsibly and treat others with more morality because they care about making life easier in the future.
Others find it difficult to see themselves as extensions of who they are today, and they frequently act in ways that are significantly less responsible. They appear to view their future selves as distinct individuals with little bearing on their present selves, which accounts for their apparent lack of concern for the long-term effects of their choices.
You might consider your future self a relationship that needs to be fostered and grown. Fortunately, there are a few easy ways to increase empathy and compassion for the person you will become, which will have a significant impact on your health, contentment, and financial stability.
The ideas of philosophers like Samuel Butler from the 18th century served as an influence for the more contemporary psychological studies on the future self. According to Samuel Butler in 1736, “since the self or person of today and that of tomorrow are not the same, but just like persons, the person of today is actually no more interested in what will happen to the person of tomorrow than in what will happen to any other person.”
Later, the British philosopher Derek Parfit, whose work attracted the interest of a young researcher named Hal Hershfield, extended and promoted the thesis. Hershfield, an associate professor of marketing, behavioural decision-making, and psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles thought that many irrational aspects of human behaviour, such as our reluctance to save money for retirement, might be explained by a separation from our future selves.
Hershfield first needed to determine how to gauge a person’s “future self-continuity” to find out. He used a straightforward illustration with circles in pairs to depict his present and future selves. The participants in his study had to decide which pair best reflected how similar and connected they felt to a future self 10 years from now. The circles overlapped to varied degrees.
He then made comparisons between these replies and several financial planning metrics. In one experiment, the subjects were given a choice between receiving a smaller incentive right away or a greater reward down the road. Participants who felt more connected to the future were considerably more willing to put off their desires and wait for the larger payment, as was to be expected. This is often referred to as “delayed gratification.” (One study involving young children using marshmallows as treat tested this hypothesis.)
Hershfield then examined the real-life savings of his participants to see if this propensity for prudent financial planning was consistent with actual behaviour. Indeed, he discovered that participants had saved more money if they felt more linked to their future selves.
Hershfield’s further research has looked at the occurrence in numerous other spheres of life. For instance, in 2018, he discovered that individuals’ future self-continuity could predict their exercise habits and all-around fitness. It appears that if you closely identify with your future self, you are more motivated to take care of your body to ensure that it has better health in the years to come.
According to his additional research, those who perform well on the future self-continuity test have higher moral standards than those who find it difficult to connect with their future selves. For instance, they were less prone to cheat on exams. People will be better able to see how their present-day choices will affect their future selves if they have a stronger connection to their future selves, according to Hershfield. And that will assist them in stopping these behaviours.
Hershfield asserted in 2020 that a person’s long-term wellness may be affected by their (inability to) identify with their future selves. A person’s future self-continuity at the start of the study could predict their life satisfaction 10 years later, according to his longitudinal study, which followed more than 4,000 people for ten years.
This conclusion remained the case even after accounting for their beginning health. This made it less likely that those who felt connected to their future selves just had better life satisfaction at the beginning of the study and stayed there. Instead, it appears likely that the increased happiness at the end of the trial was the effect of all those good habits, like spending less money and exercising more, that added up to a more pleasant life.
Vision for the Future
Following these findings, other neuroscientists have begun to investigate the neural mechanisms underlying these phenomena and the reasons why so many people have trouble identifying with their future selves.
Participants in another study were recently asked to estimate the future-self continuity overlap at various time intervals by Meghan Meyer, an assistant professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Like Hershfield’s studies, participants in one of these tests had to determine how similar their present and future selves were by manipulating the overlap of two circles. They carried out the exercise repeatedly while picturing themselves three, six, nine, and one year in the future.
Meyer discovered that similar to Hershfield’s findings, the typical participant’s concept of their future self and concept of their current self diverged very rapidly, with a significant sense of detachment already apparent at the three-month mark. Interestingly, this shift appeared to plateau as they looked at the later time periods. As a result, the nine-month and year time points had little in common, and we may assume that the same would have been true if they had taken even later dates into account. According to Meyer, their perception of their future selves was getting “blurrier” and less complex.
Results from functional MRI scans, which provided some intriguing evidence that we do start to think about our future selves as a different people at the neurological level, also supported this. The participants were asked to think about a stranger, such as the German politician Angela Merkel, in addition to thinking about themselves at various periods in the future. The brain activity related to themselves began to mimic the reaction to the politician’s thoughts as the individuals proceeded further down the timeline, envisioning themselves from about six months onward.
As you go further into the future, Meyer claims that how you portray yourself and Angela Merkel isn’t all that dissimilar. It fits with this philosophical principle that you should approach your future self as a stranger.
It seems reasonable to question if we can deepen our sense of connectedness to our future selves given the many advantages for our overall happiness, health, and financial security.
The research by Hershfield provides a few recommendations. His subjects entered a virtual reality environment with customized avatars that represented how they would seem at the age of 70 in one series of trials. They expressed a better sense of connection to their future selves, as planned, and showed more financial responsibility in subsequent decision-making tests. For instance, they said they were more likely to save money for retirement. You can already prematurely age your selfies with several photo editing tools, and this kind of technology may be used in educational initiatives that encourage people to give their future health more consideration.
A low-tech intervention like writing a letter to yourself 20 years from now outlining your priorities right now and your plans for the future as a simple imagination exercise. This inspires people to experience a stronger feeling of connection with their future selves, much like the sight of the elderly avatars, which prepares them for good behavioural change. According to Hershfield’s research, after completing the task, participants spent more time exercising the following week, indicating that they had begun to take their long-term health seriously. (If you’re eager to give it a try, he advises enhancing the effects by having the reply be written from the future, which will compel you to think in the long term.)
Hershfield incorporates his studies into his personal life, as one might anticipate. For instance, he attempts to put himself in the shoes of his future self to consider how he might view his behaviour when coping with the pressures and frustrations of parenting. He says, “I try to wonder if the way I treated myself would make me feel proud.”
Starting a “conversation” with an imagined person may feel odd at first, but as your future self comes to life in your imagination, you could find it much simpler to make the modest concessions needed to protect your present well-being.