It's become an annual New Year's tradition for me to post an alternative to New Year's Resolutions.
This year, I want to share with you one of my favorite exercises for connecting with your future self.
In The Willpower Intinct, I wrote about the importance of feeling connected to your future self. People who feel close to, caring toward, and similar to their future selves are more likely to invest in their well-being -- an excellent state to be in as we enter a new year. And yet many people feel like their future self is a stranger.
Psychologists have come up with some fun tricks for connecting to your future self, from interacting with 3-D virtual reality avatars of your future self, to writing a letter to your future self, to this age-advancing online photo app meant to inspire you to save for retirement.
But an exercise I especially like comes from a study by psychologists at the University of Liège in Belgium. They looked at people's ability to generate vivid "self-defining" future memories. That is, can you imagine an event in the future that will be important, meaningful, and shape who you are?
This isn't about make-believe, such as imagining winning the lottery or moving to a tropical island. It's about considering the most important roles, goals, and relationships in your life, and looking ahead to milestones. It's about reflecting on the biggest challenges and themes in your life, and what might feel like a meaningful resolution to them. It's about making those future moments feel real, and possible, in this moment, no matter what you are going through.
The psychologists found that the ability to generate such self-defining future memories was important for experiencing a sense of self-continuity -- exactly what other researchers have shown helps us to be, and become, the best versions of ourselves.
To celebrate New Year's, why not spend a few moment reflecting on a future moment that would be especially meaningful to you? What will it feel like? Can you imagine yourself, in that moment?
Or, if you're in a looking-back frame of mind, consider reflecting on the moments of 2013 that were especially self-defining. The researchers found that self-defining past memories are just as important to a sense of meaning and optimism as self-defining future memories.
Study cited: D'Argembeau, A., Lardi, C., & Van der Linden, M. (2012). Self-defining future projections: Exploring the identity function of thinking about the future. Memory, 20(2), 110-120.
Want other ideas for going beyond the traditional New Year’s resolution? Check out last year's post, five resolution alternatives to celebrate yourself in 2013, and get to your goals in 2014.
Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her latest book is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. She is also the author of The Neuroscience of Change and Yoga for Pain Relief.