When people ask what’s the one thing that keeps me living a happy, frugal, and balanced life, I tell them that I like to “time travel”. Just about every day I converse with my future self. Yes, I know this sounds crazy, but hear me out.
Every day we get bombarded with things — text messages, emails, other phone notifications, bills, bad news, family obligations, work obligations, etc. These things can all have an in-your-face quality to them. They all seem to be urgent and persistent. You might even feel like you’re playing a game of “whack-a-mole”. You “get rid” of one, only for another to pop up and taunt you.
When you recall what a certain day was like, you might think of all the things you did or didn’t do; all the problems that persisted or got solved; and all the things you needed or wanted that went fulfilled or unfulfilled.
That’s because most of us recall things from the immediate past using our present (experiential) self, which often acts like a recorder. The experiential self accounts for and records the moment-to-moment and day-to-day needs, wants, tasks, efforts, and trials. It lives and feels things in the moment.
When you think of day-to-day decisions, you often call upon this experiential self. But sometimes, a much better approach is to put some distance between you and the problem, task, emotion, or goal at hand. That’s when I call upon my (perceived) future self.
What? I Have More than One Self?
Yes, we all have multiple selves. And what’s worse is that these selves often are at odds with each other. Present self might want to indulge in an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy. Future self might not be so happy about that decision. Present self might want to binge watch shows on the sofa instead of taking some time to exercise. Future self might put more value on the exercise than the shows.
These are pretty stark examples of the difference in perspective and the resulting conflict that occurs between our multiple selves. But the conflict shows up in ways we don’t always expect or appreciate. For example, there are studies that show that having children makes you happier and other studies that show children rob you of your happiness. So is one study bogus? Are parents lying? No, both studies are completely legit.
What’s causing this discrepancy? Some believe it comes from cultural and economic differences among the sets of parents. But there is another bigger factor largely ignored by most researchers. The researchers are not examining whether they are asking a parent’s present self or their future self (by way of having them reflect on the distant past). Let me explain.
Sarah’s Experience at Disneyland:
I once heard this story of a mother who took her two kids to Disneyland to celebrate her oldest child’s 5th birthday. She said it took nearly 2 hours to get them ready that morning to leave the hotel because of various things. Her 2-year old wouldn’t stop fussing. Her oldest wanted to take along a specific toy, which they had to search for. There was a hitting episode which took place on the car ride there, including an argument on who started it.
And things didn’t get better when they got to the park. The two kids each wanted to do different things, go in different directions. During the entire time at Disneyland, one of the two was always hot, cold, hungry, tired, or bored.
So when you ask this mother (on that day), “How was your visit to Disneyland?” She might respond with, “Stressful” or “Tiring”.
But ask her in a month or two, and she might look upon the photos and memories with warmth and contentment in her heart. She might remember the laughter and smiles of her children that day more than the fussing and fighting. Ask her in a few years, and the only thing she might recall is that her child’s 5th birthday was also his first-ever visit to Disneyland.
What? I Have Amnesia
This phenomenon, in which we reinterpret the distant past differently (than the present or immediate past), is called Rosy Retrospection. We misremember all the time. We think our future self will take note of everything just like our present experiential self does. But it doesn’t. Instead, when it looks back, it derives and constructs a narrative from an overall impression.
Understanding that this phenomenon happens to all of us can remind us of a very important life lesson. Whatever frustrating or stressful thing is happening right now in this very moment, your future self will most likely perceive it differently than your present self. In due time, most of our daily tasks, grievances, even pain and heartache, will be forgotten.These things just simply won’t matter as much to our future self in the long-run.
In a sense, this amnesia benefits our survival. If we remembered in detail the pain of childbirth, none of us would do it a second time. Knowing that you will have a selective memory of the past can remind you not to get too caught up in the present moment.
In addition to this lesson, in the next article, I will list other lessons I’ve learned from talking to my future self.