“Our disconnectedness from the [imagined] older version of us,” psychologists believe, is “a surprisingly powerful subconscious influence on our behavior.” So wrote Leon Neyfakh in the Ideas section of the Boston Sunday Globe on January 6, 2013, in his article, “Meet Future You. Now Be Nice.”
The conundrum is that, the more we imagine that we will change significantly as we age, the less we want to sacrifice today’s pleasure for tomorrow’s happiness because it seems to us that tomorrow’s happiness will belong—somehow—to a different person. Why should people feel motivated to save money, give up dessert, tell the truth…if the benefits will go to their future selves that they can’t yet recognize as “themselves” in their imaginations today?
Neyfakh quoted psychologist Anne Wilson as saying: “You have to find that sweet spot. You need to feel connected enough and care enough about [your future self] in order to pursue [your goals], but not feel so close and connected that you just reap the benefits before you’ve actually done the work.”
Based on how I understand this article, I identify another sweet spot: You need to feel distant enough from your future self to understand that there’s a goal you haven’t achieved yet and into which you must therefore invest effort if you ever want to become that imagined future self, but not feel so distant that you resent working so hard as if you were doing it on behalf of a total stranger.
Hal Hershfield, a professor whose research interests include decision-making, was quoted in the article as saying, “It’s fine to think about that future self as another person—it just has to be another person you feel close to and have a lot of overlap with,” since “the marriages that work best and the friendships that work best are the ones where people feel like the other person is almost part of them.”
Today—having happened across the saved newsprint in my paper hoard—I think about this advice in the context of how much time we invest in our artistic projects. When I make any piece of serious art, I grow as a person just from the process of envisioning it, discovering a way to express it, and seeing it through to the end. When I think of certain accomplishments as very distant, as in, Someday I’ll be the sort of person who can write this book, the book doesn’t get written because I’m essentially telling myself I am not yet the sort of person who can do it. But when I think of certain accomplishments as achievable by me—because the accomplishments are, let’s say, in my “zone of proximal development”—I’m more likely to sit down and write a first draft. I realize I’ll have to grow and change a bit to see it through to the end properly, but it is still I, and not some barely imaginable stranger, who is able to put in the effort and take credit.