Why We Need Empathy for Our Future Selves

A simple thought experiment can help you make better choices.

Posted Oct 19, 2019

Bruce Mars/Pexels
Source: Bruce Mars/Pexels

In recent years, lay and medical publications have extolled the positive effects of empathy on our health and happiness. Research has linked empathy to outcomes ranging from higher life satisfaction to less racism. And while some cite a concern for negative consequences of too much empathy, it’s reasonable to conclude that the world as a whole would benefit from expressing and experiencing more of this trait. Generally, we speak of having empathy for others, or occasionally for ourselves. But there is an additional way to use this ability to our advantage: We can express empathy for our future selves.

Empathy is nuanced, and several subtypes of this ability have been proposed. Affective empathy allows us to experience the emotions of others, while cognitive empathy grants us insight into what other people are thinking. Compassionate empathy gives us the ability to be moved by what others are going through. Each type helps us better understand those around us. 

Further discussions of empathy subtypes sometimes describe terms like self-compassion—the idea of extending compassion and acceptance to one’s self despite our own failures or shortcomings. Occasionally, some use the term “self-empathy” to explain a similar concept. Having empathy for ourselves is wonderful, and should be promoted. However, there’s another powerful way to use these concepts to improve our lives.

Imagine for a moment, the version of you that will wake up in your bed tomorrow: your future self. This person will be very similar to you, but not identical. Billions of cells will be replaced, and whatever occurs between now and tomorrow morning will additionally ensure that you’re not exactly the same person you are at this moment.

Think about the fact that what you do, say, eat, and experience now will change the way your future self feels on waking tomorrow. Will your future self wake up tired because you stayed up late tonight watching Netflix? Will your future self struggle to shake off a hangover or experience indigestion because you chose to eat pizza in the middle of the night? Does your future self have to worry about being unprepared for a lecture because you’re goofing off today?

The idea is simple: Your future self is almost you, but not quite. In several ways, your future self is another person, with different desires, a different mood, and a different set of problems. Here’s the important part: Your decisions today help determine whether your future self is set up for success or likely to experience failure. You get to decide if you want to treat your future self kindly or with cruelty. It’s up you to choose if you want to show empathy to this person with whom you have so much in common.

A practical application of this thought exercise is easy to appreciate. Many of us treat others far better than we treat ourselves. By seeing your future self as another person, you can start showing empathy for a separate individual. You can begin to look at your short-term-oriented choices not just for their immediate consequences, but also for their impact on this future character. Imagine your future self as an close friend or family member and it is harder to make choices that disadvantage this person or put them at risk for suffering or failure.

Scientific research has supported this idea. In 2016, a study showed that when researchers disrupted activity in a part of the brain involved in expressing empathy toward others — the temporo-parietal junction — people were less likely to make future-oriented decisions. With part of the empathy circuit disabled, people lost concern for their long-term needs. Researchers suggested that the poor decisions that followed were related to decreased concern for the future self.

At a time when so many of our problems are the result of quick-fix solutions like junk food and mindless digital media consumption, we need to use all available tools to break free from instant gratification traps. By introducing the concept of the future self, and the idea of expressing empathy for this individual through our decisions, we can better consider the full impact of our choices and alter them accordingly.