Think ahead, live longer
People who plan ahead and think of the future are often healthier than those living for the here-and-now, argues a prominent US psychologist.
Do you live for the present, without worrying about tomorrow? Do you view the future through the prism of what’s happened to you in the past? Or do you keep one eye on the future in everything you do?
Whichever you do, will impact directly on your health, argues US psychologist Philip Zimbardo.
Zimbardo, Emeritus Professor at Stanford University, is the author of a new book The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life. In it he argues people tend to make decisions based on whether they are orientated to the past, present or future.
Some people are dominated by their past experiences and this influences how they make decisions now. These past experiences may be positive – family or cultural traditions or rewards for good things they’ve done in the past – or they may be negative events – past traumas influencing what they do in the present. People with post-traumatic stress syndrome have been negatively influenced by their past.
Other people are orientated towards the present. They seek immediate rewards, without much thought for the future, and are influenced by their body sensations and physiology (hunger, thirst, desire for sex etc) or what their peer group is doing. Rather than plan ahead, these people often rely on luck or fate and they tend to have lower levels of impulse control and emotional stability. Zimbardo says people who have addictions are very often present-thinkers, as are gamblers or those who run up credit card debts.
Then there are people who are focused on the future, these people think of the consequences of their actions. They are good at controlling their egos and impulses; are conscientious, consistent, non-aggressive, and have low levels of depression.
In reality we all have a bit of past, present and future orientation, but we tend to be skewed to one and underuse the others, says Zimbardo.
He argues your time perspective may depend on many things including the climate you live in, your religion, your education (more educated people tend to be more future thinking), your gender (women are more future thinking than men), what income you earn (poorer people tend to be more present-orientated) and your age.
In fact, we are all born present-thinkers, but become more focused on the future as we age, often in response to pressure from society. Many of the stories, nursery rhymes and games we play as kids encourage us to be forward-thinking; as does school and higher education.
But being totally future-oriented is also unhealthy, says Zimbardo.
Excessive emphasis on the future causes anxiety in the here and now, (as to how things might turn out) which can lead to social isolation and performance anxiety (especially anxiety about sexual performance).
This is where present-oriented thinkers have some advantages; they make friends easily (being the ‘life of the party’), they are creative thinkers and have plenty of energy to enable them to achieve their goals.
Being past-oriented (especially if your past experiences are positive) also has some advantages. Your family or culture may give you a sense of identity and continuity and provide you with positive role models.
So what we need is a balance of all three ways of thinking.
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Source: ABC Health and Wellbeing, Think Ahead & Live Longer, 12/03/2009