“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” – Author, Annie Dillard
Most of us are familiar with the story, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. A quick summary: it describes the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future who visit the main character, Scrooge, to reawaken and transform his miserly, selfish ways. The themes of kindness, compassion, and social connection are brought to light during the story, but it’s not until towards the end, after the last ghostly visitor foretells Scrooge’s bleak future, that redemption is possible if he starts to change his self-centered ways.
What if we could envision our “future selves” in order to change our current behavior? According to author and behavioral scientist Hal Hershfield, many people have trouble envisioning their future selves. He believes it’s a reason why we have a difficult time planning for the future, such as saving money for retirement, or practicing healthy lifestyle habits for a better quality of life as we age. Hershfield’s research has found that our brains perceive our future self as a separate person — with less urgent wants and needs than our present self who often defaults to immediate gratification. It’s one reason why we choose to take the elevator over the stairs, the couch and cocktail after work instead of a brisk walk, or the big bowl of ice cream for dessert over a piece of fruit. These behavior choices might seem harmless in the moment, yet over time, perhaps during the early years of retirement, our impulsivity catches up with us in harmful ways.
The average American will spend their last 10 years of their retirement in poor health, due largely to a lifetime of unhealthy behaviors and not realizing the future consequences. Making healthy lifestyle changes affects not only our risk for disease and the way we feel today, but also our health and ability to function independently later in life. I’m reminded of this each week while working at a retirement community that provides assisted living. The majority of residents whom I pass in the hallways or who attend my fitness classes have physical or cognitive impairments that greatly affect their quality of life. Most who attend my seated classes require assistance from walking devices. On the other hand, there’s a small percentage of residents I come across who walk briskly and upright in the halls, or are breaking a sweat on a treadmill in the gym, or swimming numerous laps in the pool. One could argue that these robust retirees were more connected to their future selves much earlier in life.
As I’ve said in previous posts, most people don’t get sick, suffer from chronic pain, and become frail as they age through any fault of their own. Our sedentary culture and the availability and overabundance of unhealthy foods have a lot to do with it. Over time, we tend to accept our behavior as normal, mainly because our culture and environment encourage it, but it’s also human nature to seek comfort and be well fed. There’s an evolutionary advantage for humans to desire instant gratification. The fundamental things that humans need to survive, like food, were not readily available in the distant past, compared to the overwhelming abundance of choices today. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to eat once they found food, because they might not know where their next meal would come from.
The desire for instant gratification was rooted in our ancestors’ ability to survive. Since life was brutal and short, the rewards for decisions and actions made in the immediate present far outweighed any long-term gain. Humans today take pleasure in potentially harmful things mainly because they enhance our lives now, more than what we judge to be their eventual risks in the future. With advances in medicine, our life expectancy could reach 80 to 90 years, but unfortunately for many, the last decade or so often ends up in poor health and quality of life.
When it comes to our health, a big part of how we feel and what our life looks like 10 or 20 or 30 years in the future depends on what we are doing right now! So, how can we take better care of our present self to ensure a better quality of life for our future self? Unlike instant gratification, which is instinctual, delaying gratification is a skill that we can learn and acquire. But it requires us to ignore doing something easier in favor of doing something harder, such as walking or biking to the store instead of driving, or preparing and cooking dinner instead of ordering takeout. In other words, delayed gratification sometimes involves slowing down and accepting some discomfort, over the fast and easy pleasure of instant gratification. But the result can be greater rewards in the future.
Another way to be more connected to your future self is to believe that the future starts sooner rather than later. It’s understandable to be disconnected from your future self as an invincible young adult, but when the signs of aging (e.g. gray hair, wrinkles, stiffness, stooped posture, aches and pains, etc.) start showing up, your future self is knocking on your door. Rather than accepting that this is what growing old is like, use it as motivation to ensure you start taking better care of yourself now. By doing so, you’ll have a larger, more vital life in your retirement years, as opposed to being isolated in your home, dependent on walking devices, medications and caregivers to get you through your day.