How talking to your future self can improve your health and happiness

From meeting an older version of yourself in virtual reality to writing letters from the future, these evidence-based tricks can help you make better decisions today.

IT WAS with mixed feelings that Hal Hershfield sat down for a video chat with a serial killer. But Hershfield, a behavioural economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, believed Pedro Rodrigues Filho might teach him something about how we can all make better decisions.

You may want that purchase now, but what would older you think?
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Rodrigues spent a total of 41 years in prison for murdering 71 people, and other crimes. In their conversation, he described to Hershfield how, one day, he dramatically changed his mindset. While in solitary confinement after killing a fellow prisoner who attacked him, he said, he spoke to God and vowed to change.

Following his second release from prison, in 2018, Rodrigues claimed to have stopped killing, started exercising and began educating others about the dangers of crime on YouTube. “I consider myself to be a new person now,” he told Hershfield.

This dramatic change was “a walking example of how we can be different people over time”, says Hershfield. In his book, Your Future Self, Hershfield shows that people who feel close to their future selves – and realise they may be different to their present selves – make better decisions, such as exercising and staying on the right side of the law. They tend to have better university grades, superior finances and greater well-being.

Unlike Rodrigues, you don’t need a religious epiphany to make such a change. Hershfield is testing various techniques to allow us to engage with our future selves – including writing them letters and even talking to them in virtual reality – that could transform not only how you relate to yourself, but also how you behave in the here and now.

Imagining a fit older you can help you achieve that goal by exercising more
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We are surprisingly bad at taking the future into consideration. While you might know someone who is stuck in the past or others who always live for tomorrow, this isn’t the norm. “Overall, there’s a tendency for us all to be present oriented,” says Marc Wittmann, a psychologist at the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany. The present is concrete and often “bodily oriented” – with decisions driven by physical feelings such as hunger or anxiety – while the future is more abstract, he says.

Focusing on the present is why we so often fail to stick to diets and struggle to keep New Year’s resolutions: future goals simply aren’t as vivid or appealing as another biscuit right now. Research by Wittmann and his colleagues demonstrated that when people are offered either £100 immediately or £125 in a week, most opt for the smaller, instant reward. This is called temporal discounting, meaning we essentially apply a discount to rewards in the future – failing to take our future selves into consideration.

Hershfield wanted to find out whether this bias could be seen in the brain. Two papers based on data from functional MRI and PET scans from various studies have shown that areas in the middle of the brain’s cortex, including the medial prefrontal cortex and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, tend to be more active when we think about ourselves, compared with when we think about others. So, Hershfield wondered, what about when we think about our future selves?

Strangers to our minds

He and his colleagues asked participants to lie down in an fMRI scanner and make judgements about various words, such as “funny” or “honourable”, in relation to their current self, their future self or one of two actors, Matt Damon or Natalie Portman. When people thought of their future self, there was less activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex than when they thought of their current self. In fact, the brain activity associated with their future self was similar to that resulting from thinking about the celebrities.

There were individual differences. The more disconnected people felt from their future selves, and the more this showed in the brain scans, the more likely they were to engage in temporal discounting in a task a week later. It seems our future selves can literally be strangers to our minds. This was a small study, but experiments by Hershfield and others have reported similar results.

Thinking about the future is more important than ever. “When life expectancy was lower, we didn’t need to think very far ahead,” says Hershfield. “But now, if you are in a developed nation, you can expect to live a decently long life – and that means you’ve got to think about the future.”

We may not want to. When we are younger, the very far future contains ageing and death, topics we are often keen to avoid. And even if we force ourselves to think about the future, we often fail to do so in a meaningful way, since we tend to have a poor understanding of what our future selves will be like.

Some people are naturally more connected to their future selves than others. One sign of being disconnected, according to Fuschia Sirois, a psychologist at the University of Durham, UK, is procrastination. “People who are prone to procrastination prioritise feeling good now over pushing through emotional difficulties around a task to accomplish something their future selves can enjoy,” she says. Her research shows that procrastinators tend to struggle with negative emotions, but also have difficulties thinking about the future.

Procrastination is linked to poor health and mental health problems. “There’s a whole emotional dynamic that happens after people procrastinate. You start to feel bad, experiencing shame and guilt,” says Sirois. “And that drives further procrastination.” A better approach to difficult tasks, she says, is self-compassion. People who have compassion for themselves typically don’t feel as bad about procrastinating and do it less.

In a similar vein, Wittmann has shown that people who report feeling mindful also tend to be more future oriented. This may seem paradoxical, since mindfulness is all about being in the present. But mindfulness helps us control emotional and physical urges, which is useful when planning for the future. “Mindfulness is a proxy for self-regulation capacity,” says Wittmann.

On top of this, Hershfield and his colleagues have found that people who feel continuity with their future selves are also more likely to be humble and behave in an ethically responsible way. After identifying all of these benefits, Hershfield began thinking about whether he could design ways to make people more connected with their future selves.

Virtual reality

“I had started seeing holograms being used in music performances,” he says, “and in one of my lab meetings, I mentioned it would be quite cool if we could do something similar with our future selves… that is, somehow have people meet a hologram of their future selves.” Someone else suggested he talk to the researchers in the virtual reality lab in the building next door.

That chat led to Hershfield and his colleagues setting up a series of experiments. They ran pictures of people through a program that could realistically age them to create older avatars complete with age spots, grey hair and wrinkles. They then created a VR program in which people could meet their current self or their future self in a virtual mirror. After people had completed the task, they were asked to answer a series of questions, including what they would do if they received $1000 right now. Those who had interacted with their future selves were significantly more likely to want to save money than those who met their current selves. “What [Hershfield] is doing is making your future self less abstract,” says Wittmann. “It makes you think more about yourself and get more empathy towards yourself.”

Since this initial study, the findings have been repeated in a variety of situations. Jean-Louis van Gelder, a criminologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, used a similar VR set-up to let a small group of convicted offenders, some in prison and some on probation, interact with their future selves – including receiving advice from them. One participant found it so disturbing that he left the experiment in tears, recalls van Gelder.

Many criminals are extremely focused on the present, while failing to consider future consequences. “What we are focusing on here is a group that’s so extremely [temporally] short-sighted,” says van Gelder. “So, theoretically at least, they have so much room for growth.” After just one session, participants typically felt closer to their future selves and, after the sessions, many also reduced alcohol use and overspending.

You don’t need access to VR equipment to become closer to your future self. Apps like FaceApp or filters on social media that can age you can do the trick. In one study, Hershfield and his team asked working adults how much they would hypothetically like to contribute to a retirement pot. As they made the decision, some participants saw a picture of their future self while others saw an image of their current self, based on a photo they had uploaded. Those who saw their present selves were willing to invest about 2 per cent of their salary, while the participants who saw their future selves opted for 6 per cent.

You could also try good old-fashioned letter writing. In another experiment, Hershfield and his colleagues created an app that allowed Mexican banking customers to write notes to their retirement-aged selves. Those who did were significantly more willing to sign up for an automatic savings account. Other research shows that people who wrote letters to or from their future selves, one year ahead, during the ongoing covid-19 pandemic experienced fewer negative feelings. Ideally, you should also let your future self respond to the letter, says Hershfield. That increases the effect.

Before you rush off to put all this into practice, perhaps by printing an age-progressed image of yourself on your credit card, Hershfield thinks we should save this technique for big life decisions, such as buying or renting a property, or deciding our contribution to a retirement fund. “Those may be moments where it’s worth having a conversation with your future self,” he says.

Save it for big decisions

When it comes to everyday, repeated decisions – such as whether to go to the gym or have a glass of wine after work – it may be more useful to commit to a strategy and make it difficult to mess up. This works for Hershfield, at least, who locks up his phone each evening. Other than that, the main thing he does is to ask himself how his future self would feel about different outcomes when he is faced with particularly tough decisions.

George Loewenstein, a behavioural economist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania thinks Hershfield’s work is “compelling”. Nevertheless, he says we shouldn’t take the findings to mean that a change in mindset alone can lead to a massive boost in how much people save for retirement. The current economic system makes it very difficult for most people to save money, he says. “The moment we say people aren’t saving enough for retirement, we’re just taking our flawed system as a given and putting the onus on the individual.”

Another possible drawback is that an obsessive relationship with our future self might become toxic – making us unhappy, selfish and, eventually, full of regrets. In their book The Time Paradox, psychologists Philip Zimbardo and Daniel Boyd suggest that people who are too focused on future goals are less likely to offer immediate help to others.

Hershfield is also quick to point out there is such a thing as too much focus on the future. Being friends with your future self is all about balance. “If you said that you were completely sacrificial to your partner in a way that gave you no ability to get your own independent happiness, then I would say that’s not a good relationship”, and the same applies to our relationship with our future selves, he says. “The irony there is that you are still doing a disservice to your future self, because you will look back and regret it.”

We tend to experience more regret about delaying gratification than about giving in to temptation. At the end of our lives, after all, most of us typically regret what we didn’t do more than what we did do. Those of us who aren’t serial killers, that is.

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