- When it comes to making healthy choices, many of us do not connect to our future selves.
- Lack of connection to our future selves means we may skip actions that will help us reach our goals.
- We can rewrite our approach to the future using principles from positive psychology.
Who among us wouldn’t want to have more self-control when trying to maintain good health habits? Broadly speaking, those refer to eating healthy, nutritious, foods, and getting enough exercise. Actually, there are some others like getting enough sleep, handling stress, and even flossing every day. Many people struggle to do what they know is going to help them. Why is this so hard?
We are often reminded that our environment is rife with distractions. We have food available all day long, and our lives can get busy with work, family, and leisure. How is a person supposed to stay focused on long-term goals when there is so much going on every day?
Affective Forecasting Often a Nonstarter
Our human experience includes something that has been called affective forecasting. Simply put, affective forecasting is an ability to connect with our future selves in a way that predicts how we will feel in that future. If we can do that, we then connect with that future self in our minds, emotions, and actions. We can adjust today’s actions to fit in with what we want our future self to be able to do.
Unfortunately, most of us do not connect well with our future selves. According to Wilson and Gilbert (2005), we see our future selves as someone else who is separate from ourselves. If we could forecast our future feelings/affect, we would be better able to anticipate events and our reactions to them and be better at making daily decisions that are in line with our future goals. Little wonder that we have difficulty with this. Our lives are unpredictable, and our mood can be influenced by myriad events and interactions.
Eating and Exercise
The lack of forecasting often plays out when we procrastinate. It is so much easier to follow the influences of the day and put off actions that could serve a long-term goal.
Procrastination comes in many forms (saving for the future comes to mind), but let’s use some examples in the areas of eating and exercise. We can succumb to the chocolate cake or put off getting some exercise, even if we have time. Our goals of healthy eating and getting enough exercise can take a back seat to today’s temptations.
I have seen many aspects of the lack of affective forecasting play out again and again when it comes to choosing healthy eating options or making the choice to exercise more often.
It can look like this: Say a person decides to exercise more. They join a gym and figure that they will stay motivated to attend, even though they don't really like going to the gym. They do start going…a few times. Then two things happen. First of all, life gets in the way. They get busy and have trouble prioritizing the time to go. On another level, their feeling of not liking the gym is still there. And, yet, when they signed up, they somehow anticipated that their future selves would make it a habit. As the research tells us, they imagined a future self as someone who is a consistent exerciser, without actually connecting to the emotions of that future person. The person has not anticipated that they will need to find positivity in the experience to become consistent going forward.
Now let’s take a look at dieting or, at the very least, trying to make a few healthier choices when it comes to eating. When someone decides to do that, they must somehow be thinking that they will be able to continue on the trail of changing some eating habits to reach their goals of losing weight and getting healthier. However, often there is no projection of how they are going to feel in a week or two, especially when faced with an environment that encourages falling off the wagon. Again, there is no plan to make the experience a happy one that the person will want to sustain.
Future Forecasters: Made or Born?
It appears that some people are blessed with a more robust connection to their future selves. Perhaps these are the ones who find it easier to gut it out to train for a 10K or figure out how to regroup after falling off their eating plan.
In fact, research (Rutchick et al., 2018) tells us that having a good connection to our future selves is associated with improved health. Subjects showing that strong connection reported better subjective health across a variety of measures. Interestingly, their research also showed that it is possible to help individuals connect with their future selves to promote healthier habits. More research needs to be done on this, as it is clear that many of us struggle with our future forecasting. This can have direct consequences for our health.
A potential solution comes to us from the field of positive psychology. The designated father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman (1990), outlines steps toward positivity that can be used to beat moment-to-moment emotions that may cause us to do things that are not in line with our goals (in other words, when we make impulsive choices).
Briefly, they are as follows:
- Learn to recognize your automatic thoughts and feelings.
- Learn to dispute those thoughts and feelings by coming up with contrary evidence, then re-write your inner monologue. (Replace “I hate going to the gym” with “I haven’t explored all my options there.”)
- Learn to make a different explanation. (Replace “I have always hated to cook.” with “I can learn some new, easy, ways to cook.”)
- Learn to distract yourself when you are negative. (Replace “No one is going to support my new efforts” with “People will be glad to help me with this.”)
- Learn to question the assumptions you make. (Lay out the evidence by writing it down or talking with a friend.)
In a nutshell, it is important to be aware that most of us are lousy forecasters. It’s part of our human nature. Once we are aware of it and can accept that, we can work with it by creating strategies like those above. We can put a positive spin on it. We can learn to beat the system.
Wilson, T.D. and Gilbert, D.T. (2005). Affective Forecasting: Knowing What to Want. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol. 14, No 3.
Rutchick, A. M. et al. (2018). Future self-continuity is associated with improved health and increases exercise behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. 24(1), 72–80.
Seligman, M.E.P. (1990). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage Books.