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The Importance of Our Time Perspective

The genesis of Zimbardo's time perspective theory and therapy.

Key points

  • Time Perspective Therapy (TPT) helps people determine how they view the past, present, and future and how those perspectives may hold them back.
  • Time perspectives come from one's day-to-day experiences which determine one's actions and expectations.
  • Those with a negative time perspective may have a harder time optimizing their life situations and relationships.
Phil Zimbardo
Source: Phil Zimbardo

As I prepare to present our groundbreaking work at the 3rd International Conference on Time Perspective in Copenhagen from August 15-19, it's the perfect time to introduce readers to the basis of our research: how our personal time perspective affects every aspect of our lives.

We are all responsible for our actions—and our reactions. Some of our actions are in our best interest—“I will go for a walk even though I don’t feel like it because the weather is pleasant and I could use the exercise," while other actions are not the best for us—“I need to get home in a hurry so I’ll speed through this yellow traffic light." But equally important are our inactions, the actions we chose not to take. We pat ourselves on the back for those we were right about—“Glad I didn’t run that red light because there’s a traffic officer behind me” and beat ourselves up for those we didn’t—“I should have taken that walk yesterday because this storm front is supposed to last for weeks.”

What we don’t realize is that our psychological sense of time, our time perspective, plays a key role in virtually every decision we make. Our time perspectives come from our day-to-day experiences and these experiences determine our actions as well as what we have pre-determined the outcome will be.

The question you must begin to ask yourself is, how does your personal sense of psychological time influence all your decisions, little ones as well as major ones, without your awareness? It is a major paradox. Some of our decisions are impacted by the immediate situation we are in, what we are feeling, what others are doing and telling us to do, what the desirable thing looks like and smells like: This is life in present hedonistic land. Other decisions ignore all the immediate stuff and focus on the past, on memories of similar situations, whether positive or negative. Still others are all about future consequences of current actions, what we gain, and what might we lose or risk. These are the big three-time perspectives that mentally guide our actions silently down totally different paths, sometimes for good fun, sometimes to avert disaster, and sometimes to chart a successful direction.

Time Perspective Therapy (TPT) helps us determine how we view the past, present, and future and which of our time perspectives may be holding us back from living the life we want and deserve to live.

Six Main Time Perspectives

  1. Past positive-oriented people focus on the ‘‘good old days.’’ They look forward to celebrating traditional holidays, like keeping souvenirs from past experiences and collecting photos; they may have friends they’ve known since childhood.
  2. Past negative-oriented people focus on what went wrong in the past. They live in a world of regrets and what could have been. They have a pessimistic view of their lives and the world; many past negative people prefer to think of themselves as “realists”—they believe the way they view the world is “the true” reality.
  3. Present hedonistic-oriented people live in the moment. Their goals in life are to seek pleasure, sensation, and new and unique experiences; present hedonists frequently do this to avoid pain and may have addictive personalities.
  4. Present fatalistic-oriented people feel that their fate is pre-determined. Their destiny—and future—is set; they believe they have little or no control over what happens to them and that their actions don’t make a difference in the world. For some, this time perspective comes from their religious orientation, for others, it comes from a realistic assessment of their poverty or living with extreme hardships.
  5. Future-oriented people are always thinking ahead. They plan for the future and trust in their decisions; in the extreme they may become workaholics, leaving little time to enjoy or appreciate what they have worked so hard to achieve. But they are most likely to succeed and not get in trouble.
  6. Transcendental-future-oriented people believe that life after death is more important than the life they are living. They may invest heavily in the afterlife during their current lifetime (for example, the Egyptians and the pyramids they built).

A Balanced Time Perspective Leads to Greater Stability

Our goal in time perspective therapy is twofold: help people learn how to identify the toxicity in their lives and get out of it, and learn to balance past, present, and future time perspectives in order to live a happier, more meaningful life.

The added bonus to achieving a balanced time perspective is stability. You may ask, “How does this work?” Well, a person is “unbalanced” or “unstable” when her or his main focus is a negative time perspective. Examples would be past negative—constantly thinking about the bad things that happened; present fatalism—unable to get out of the funk of thinking life sucks and we are all screwed; extreme present hedonism—constantly seeking pleasure or a steady adrenaline rush at the expense of the future; or extreme future-oriented to the point of missing out on the good things happening now.

Let’s be clear about the terms “unbalanced” and “unstable” as we mean them—not unbalanced or unstable in the sense that they could have a starring role in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; that would be extreme. Rather, we mean unstable in that they may not be leading us to optimize our life situations and relationships.

The vast majority of the people you see every day—the always-in-a-hurry supervisor too busy to acknowledge you, the disgruntled customer in the check-out line, the homeless person sitting on the curb asking you for change, the driver of the car honking their horn and riding your bumper on the freeway, the significant other who can’t wait to get you in the sack, the teenager who knows it all, may have unbalanced time perspectives and don’t know it. Why? Because we take time for granted and don’t realize how precious and important it is until it runs out.

When we practice the simple techniques outlined in time perspective therapy, take the time to focus on how we view our past, present, and future, and make adjustments if and where they are needed, we gain stability at the very core of our being. We handle situations better by understanding ourselves and others. We become more compassionate. We learn self-soothing coping skills by slowing down our breathing when we start to feel anxious and know that we can create a brighter future. We learn to enjoy life more fully and thereby gain a more stable frame of mind as well as a more robust way of viewing life—and then actually decide how to make each day the best it can be for us.

The following are some examples of how time perspectives can be balanced. By the way, our dogs and cats are probably extreme present hedonists and will be reluctant to change and follow our timely advice.

  • Past negative—People with past negative time perspectives have likely suffered from one or more traumatizing events. The(se) event(s) can be anything from a car accident, combat, a natural disaster, being mugged, mental, emotional, or physical abuse, or the unexpected loss of a loved one. Since the trauma is deeply ingrained within the person’s psyche, balancing a past negative time perspective takes boosting past positives so they replace the past negative(s) and creating a brighter future time perspective.
  • Present fatalistic—Similarly, present fatalistic people who think they have no control over their fate and are therefore depressed, may also be a relatively high past negative because more than likely something happened in the past to cause them to feel fatalistic in the present. Balance can be attained and spirits lifted by giving themselves permission to practice selected present hedonism and allowing themselves to do things they enjoy.
  • ·Extreme future—Likewise, people who are so busy planning and working toward future goals that they think they don’t have time to enjoy the here and now can balance their time perspective by learning to make time for fun, family, friends, hobbies, and romantic sex.
Rose Sword
Source: Rose Sword

Positive Effects

When our time perspectives are balanced, we can use our imaginations in wonderful ways. We can make peace with the past. We can reconnect and enjoy our time in the present with family and friends. And we can envision a brighter, more positive future that spans beyond our lifetime and leaves a legacy for those who follow us. Through our time perspective work, Rick Sword, Rose Sword, and I were able to help numerous war veterans suffering from chronic and severe posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as work with hundreds of clients from varied backgrounds who came to us suffering from stress, depression, anxiety, and life’s many adjustments, we’ve learned TPT is not only immediately effective but that it has long-lasting benefits.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Rosemary K.M. Sword and Philip Zimbardo Ph.D.
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