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The key to feeling happier about the future: Mental time travel

We will have a better shot at improving our lives once we come to understand, know, and love the people we will one day become.
a painting of a group of people flying over a city.
"A night at the opera in the year 2000," cartoon by Albert Robida, ca. 1882 / Wikimedia Commons
Key Takeaways
  • Global events have led to a rise in anxiety and uncertainty, causing many to question the value of planning for the future.
  • While present-day problems demand most of our attention, ignoring the future could lead to a recurrence or intensification of those very same problems.
  • To encourage action for the distant future, such as environmental conservation, we should pay attention to the past, fostering a sense of continuity with our ancestors and responsibility toward future generations.
Adapted from YOUR FUTURE SELF by Hal Hershfield. Copyright © 2023 by Hal Hershfield. Used with permission of Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. New York, NY. All rights reserved.

The world has recently experienced a series of catastrophic events. It’s a list that sounds like it could come from a bad summer blockbuster: warring nations, a shape‐shifting virus, rising inflation, sociopolitical upheaval, climate disasters, and so on. (All that’s missing is an imminent asteroid.) Some — or perhaps a lot of — anxiety about our present circumstances certainly seems warranted! In fact, the World Health Organization announced that in 2020 alone, cases of major depression and anxiety disorders increased by more than 25 percent.

Given these uncertainties and disruptions, it can feel pointless to make plans for the future. A recent report from Fidelity, for instance, found that almost half of adults between 18 and 35 don’t see a point in saving for the future “until things return to normal.” Stand‐up comedian Hannah Jones, 27, explained it this way: “I’m not going to deprive myself some of the comforts of life now for a future that feels like it could be ripped away from me at any moment… No, I’m not saving for retirement. I’m going to spend my money now, while we still have a supply chain at all.” 

These observations capture our collective weariness. However, I see reasons for hope amid all the gloom and doom. Although we never should stop planning for the future entirely, taking a pause can allow for more reflection on what matters. As an analogy, milestone birthdays often create little breaks in our lives, offering us a chance to take stock of what we’ve accomplished (or not) in the previous decade and what we hope to tackle in the next one. In the same way, the great global pause that COVID inflicted may have prompted many of us to focus on what we truly value. As my collaborators Adam Galinsky and Laura Kray put it, the pandemic created a sort of “universal midlife crisis,” forcing us to reconsider how we spend our precious resources of time and money. 

And yet, the current state of affairs doesn’t mean that we can ignore our distant or very distant futures altogether. The march of time is blind to the strife of the present, and the future will arrive whether we’ve planned for it or not. After all, this isn’t the first time that rampant uncertainty has made planning feel pointless. Consider, for instance, how people felt at other precarious historical moments like the Great Depression, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the 2008 financial crisis. Surely, just like now, it must have been difficult to think about the years ahead during those angst‐filled periods. What would have happened, though, if plan-making had come to a screeching halt then? 

Zander Rose, the executive director of the Long Now Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to long‐term thinking, elegantly summed up these tensions: “Many of our present problems,” he told me, “are because of a lack of long‐term thinking in the past.” 

Present‐day problems should of course demand the lion’s share of our attention. But solely focusing on in‐the‐moment problems may mean that those same issues could appear again and intensify in pernicious ways in the years, decades, and centuries to come. 

Given these competing demands — the stressful present versus the distant future — how should we allocate our mental resources? It’s a hard question that begets an even harder question, as many of our plans for the future must now take into account periods that are much longer than our own lifetimes. In essence, we’re being asked to make choices that will benefit people who will live long after we are gone. 

Nowhere is this topic more relevant than in the context of the environment. Between rising temperatures and rising tides, and an increase in catastrophic weather events worldwide, the impact of climate change is now being felt. Yet many of the severely negative consequences — some of which have already begun occurring — will impact future generations. Future generations, I might add, whom we don’t know and whom we can barely even fathom. It’s difficult to imagine and relate to our own future selves, but it’s far harder to relate to our unborn descendants. They’re not just strangers — they don’t even exist yet. 

What can we do, then, to change the perilous future? Given the psychological challenges, should we just give up and burn more fossil fuels? We can’t even motivate ourselves to go to the gym; changing the modern economy seems like a daunting ambition. 

We’ll have a better shot at improving our lives once we come to understand, know, and love the people we will one day become.

But I’m not ready to surrender — I think there are practical steps we can take to make it easier for us to act on behalf of the planet and our descendants, even if we’ll never inhabit that future Earth or meet those future people. Recent work by my colleagues and me points to one initial approach: to increase the chances that people take action for the distant future, have them pay attention to the past. Sensing deeper roots in one’s community — feeling a part of what has been and what will come to be — for instance, is linked to a greater likelihood of adopting solar panels. And focusing on the long and rich history of one’s country makes it that much easier to look farther ahead to the future and subsequently invest in the environment. 

This work is preliminary, but it raises an interesting possibility: Rather than thinking forward to more vivid futures, if we want to save our great‐grandchildren from a broiling planet, perhaps we should consider the people who came before us and the sacrifices they made on our behalf. Just as we are a chain of separate selves over our own lives, on a larger scale, we are part of a chain of human beings that extends back hundreds of thousands of years. Those early humans didn’t know us and could never have imagined today’s world, but we exist only because they were able to consider the future in some rudimentary way. Isn’t it our duty to do the same, both to give ourselves a brighter tomorrow and to ensure that people we’ll never meet will continue to thrive? 

These questions are just scratching the surface, though, and more work certainly needs to be done. One thing, however, is clear. Whether we’re on a timeline of 15 years or 150, whether we are focused on our future selves or our future grandchildren, and whether the seas of the present are smooth or choppy, we’ll have a better shot at improving our lives once we come to understand, know, and love the people we will one day become.


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