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Caring for Your Future Self

by Beth on August 10th, 2023

Many of the things we should do to be happier and healthier in the future require sacrifices today. In his book, Your Future Self, Hal Hershfield identifies several reasons why we aren’t so good at doing this. He starts with his research showing that when we think about our future selves, our brain activity is similar to our brain activity when we think about another person. We view our future selves as strangers. Finding ways to feel more connected to our future self makes it easier to take actions on that person’s behalf.

Hershfield also explains that the way we time travel when thinking about our future selves can impact our behavior. He shares three mistakes that we commonly make:

  1. “We miss our flight” by paying too much attention to what our present self wants. We get to the airport early, decide to have a few drinks in the bar, then lose track of time and miss our flight. Research shows that people prefer to take smaller amounts of money now rather than waiting for a larger amount in the future. Our tendency to overemphasize the present is why we eat junk food and don’t exercise. Bottom line: we don’t think about our future self.
  2. “We engage in poor trip planning” when we procrastinate to avoid negative emotions associated with doing something, while failing to consider that our future self will also want to avoid negative emotions. You would have had a better vacation had you booked a hotel early enough to get a central location, signed up for some tours of popular attractions, and made a few dinner reservations. Bottom line: we think ahead, but not deeply enough.
  3. “We pack the wrong clothes” because we aren’t good at imagining our future needs and feelings. Have you ever packed for a tropical vacation in the middle of winter and ended up not bringing enough warm-weather clothes? Do you know anyone who regrets having gotten a tattoo? These are examples of basing decisions for our future self on our current feelings. According to the “end-of-history illusion”, most of us recognize our preferences have changed significantly over the past 10 years, but we don’t expect them to change in the years ahead. Bottom line: we are focusing on the future, but relying too heavily on the present.

To make better choices for your future self you need to feel close to that person, but also recognize you will be different. The key is to imagine a series of interlocking versions of yourself over time. You will evolve, but each version of yourself overlaps with the others. This can help you feel connected to your future self, while also remembering that your future self will have different opinions and preferences.

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