The Psychology of Your Future Self

Photo by Matt Szymkow

At every stage of our lives, we make decisions that we believe will profoundly affect the people we will one day become. In the present moment, while we are busy saving money or eating less saturated fat so we can later retire and live a healthy life, we expect that our future selves will be thankful for our sacrifices. This is true whether it is one minute, one year or one decade from now. But the goals we set are really for our present self rather than our future selves. This “fundamental misconception about the power of time,” as psychologist Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, calls it, can dramatically impact our perception of happiness.

The challenge of satisfying our future selves arises from an “end of history illusion,” a concept that Gilbert described in a 2013 paper in Science. As a result of this misperception, we tend to believe that our present self is the culmination of our personal growth, no matter where we are on our timeline.

This, of course, is not true. Even though right now we may feel that we have peaked in our development, the only thing we can truly be certain of is change, a truth encapsulated by the Buddist concept of impermanence. Finding lasting happiness, then, involves letting go of the belief that you can satisfy your future self in the present. But even more important is understanding that no matter where you are in life, you are still far from a fixed point in time.

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“The present is a magic time. It’s a watershed on the timeline. It’s the moment at which we finally become ourselves. Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our life is change.”

~ Daniel Gilbert, TED Talk: The Psychology of Your Future Self

“Letting come what comes and go what goes. Desire not, fear not, observe the actual, as and when it happens, for you are not what happens, you are to whom it happens.

…The very perception of change – does it not necessitate a changeless background?”

~ Nisargadatta

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