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Utilize Your Future Self to Help Overcome an Addiction

Being connected to your future self provides inner strength in the moment.

Key points

  • It can be difficult for a person to feel connected to their long-term future self.
  • There are benefits to being connected with your future self, including better decision-making in all aspects of life.
  • Two significant challenges to connecting with your future self are human evolution and the powerful pull of dopamine rewards.

The other reason that it's difficult to resist temptation is because it's an unequal battle between the present self and the future self. I mean, let's face it, the present self is present. It's in control. It's in power right now. It has these strong, heroic arms that can lift doughnuts into your mouth. And the future self is not even around. It's off in the future. It's weak.

It doesn't even have a lawyer present. There's nobody to stick up for the future self. And so the present self can trounce all over its dreams. So there's this battle between the two selves that's being fought, and we need commitment devices to level the playing field between the two.– Daniel Goldstein (The battle between your present and future self, TED)

According to research by psychologist Hal Hershfield, it can be difficult for people to feel connected to their long-term future selves. By "long term" and by "future self," I mean the person you're going to become five to ten plus years down the road. Yet, if you can get connected with your long-term future self, there are many benefits, including better decision-making in all aspects of life.

Research shows that if you're connected with your long-term future self, you're more likely to save rather than over-spend your money. You're also more likely to invest toward retirement, something people consistently and regretfully take seriously far too late. Being connected with your future self is also connected with healthier eating and exercise. When connected to your future self, you're less likely to engage in harmful and self-defeating acts.

It makes sense if you consider the long-term ramifications of your actions and think more "from the end in mind," you can be far more effective and thoughtful about your actions now.

But there's a catch.

It's rare and difficult for many people to get connected enough to their long-term future self to really utilize that relationship for better decisions. According to Hershfield, there are two core challenges with getting connected to your future self. Firstly, human nature and evolution. Hershfield believes the human brain simply isn't evolved yet on a mass scale to plan 10, 20, or 30 years into the future. Second, the enormous pull of present dopamine rewards outweighs the dopamine of making progress toward long-term goals.

As Hershfield stated in an interview with Weekend University:

The idea of long-term planning is a relatively new concept from a human evolution standpoint. We weren’t evolved to live this long and have to make plans for the very distant future. Storing food for the next month or two, sure.

But, to think about stocking away a retirement nest egg in case I’m retired for 30 years? This is relatively foreign. You couple that novel aspect of planning with the idea that we’re very swayed by everything that is happening in the present. It’s very easy to ignore the long, long run, and really hard to ignore all the pulls on our attention right now.

Spending more money right now and eating something delicious right now—it’s appealing to do those things because we know we get the rewards right now. But to not do those things—to not spend, to not eat unhealthily—so that our long-run selves can be better off, well, that’s a hard proposition for a lot of people because the present is so powerful.

Put simply, human beings seem primarily often driven by urgent and immediate goals, such as paying the getting to work, paying the bills, getting groceries, hopping on social media, getting the next caffeine fix, etc. To quote the author, Robert Greene:

By our nature as rational, conscious creatures, we cannot help but think of the future. But most people, out of fear, limit their view of the future to a narrow range. Thoughts of tomorrow, a few weeks ahead, perhaps a vague plan for the months to come.

We are generally dealing with so many immediate battles that it is hard for us to lift our gaze above the moment. It is a law of power, however, that the further and deeper we contemplate the future, the greater our capacity to shape it to our desires.

Applying Future Self Science to Combat Addiction

In the book Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl persuasively explained that in order for concentration camp inmates to endure their obstacles, let alone be happy, they had to have a specific goal worth striving for. He truly believed this. Without being connected to a specific future, a person has no hope or strength in the present. Hence, he regularly quoted Friedrich Nietzsche, who stated, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Said Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning:

Any attempt at fighting the camp’s [pathological] influence on the prisoner by [therapeutic] methods had to aim at giving him inner strength by pointing out to him a future goal to which he could look forward. Instinctively some of the prisoners attempted to find one on their own. It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future-sub specie aeternitatis. And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence.

Now, I'm not comparing surviving the rigors of a concentration camp, where your whole life has been ripped from you. You continually observe those around you dying in the most brutal fashion to an addiction. However, I think we can utilize the research on the future self and Frankl's synergistic thinking with the battle of addiction.

Addictions come in sizes, both big and small. It's argued that in our age of constant digital connection and quick feedback loops, we are more unhealthily addicted to dopamine than previous generations. Whatever the case, addiction is certainly a battle within the self, often riddled with regret.

A core technique for connecting with your future self is putting yourself into their context and striving to develop empathy for your future self. You want to make your future self more vivid and clear. If you're not considering who your future self is and how your current actions impact them, you're more likely to indulge in the present.

Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, has found that people simply don't spend that much time imagining or thinking about their future selves. Sure, we take a moment here or there to think about our future. But do we really get connected? Do we really make it vivid? Do we really imagine?

I have six kids, three of whom we adopted while completing my Ph.D. I can imagine myself 10-20 years older, with each of my kids being older. Who will I be in 20 years when my kids are in their 20's and 30's? How will my habits and decisions now impact the father I am to my kids when they raise their own children? How will my financial decisions impact my kids when they want to go to college, etc.?

Here's the interesting thing about future self-science–the more connected you get with your future self, the more your prize and value the present. It's just like investing. Suppose you appreciate what compound interest can do. In that case, you see that investing even small amounts of money into your future can create dramatic returns in the long-term future, just like planting seeds can result in not just a tree but an entire orchard or forest.

To re-quote Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

All people must face the battle between their present and future selves. The question is: Who is winning that battle?

If you want to do anything with your life, including overcome long-term addictions, getting connected to your long-term future self is essential. To finish with one more quote from Frankl:

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.


Excerpted from Be Your Future Self Now.

Bryan, C. J., & Hershfield, H. E. (2013). You owe it to yourself: Boosting retirement saving with a responsibility-based appeal. Decision, 1(S), 2.

Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man's search for meaning. Simon and Schuster.

Greene, R. (2010). The 50th law (Vol. 1). Profile Books.

Hershfield, H. E., Goldstein, D. G., Sharpe, W. F., Fox, J., Yeykelis, L., Carstensen, L. L., & Bailenson, J. N. (2011). Increasing saving behavior through age-progressed renderings of the future self. Journal of Marketing Research, 48(SPL), S23-S37.

Lembke, A. (2021). Dopamine nation: Finding balance in the age of indulgence. Penguin.

Rutchick, A. M., Slepian, M. L., Reyes, M. O., Pleskus, L. N., & Hershfield, H. E. (2018). Future self-continuity is associated with improved health and increases exercise behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 24(1), 72.

Seligman, M. E., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., & Sripada, C. (2013). Navigating into the future or driven by the past. Perspectives on psychological science, 8(2), 119-141.

Van Gelder, J. L., Hershfield, H. E., & Nordgren, L. F. (2013). Vividness of the future self predicts delinquency. Psychological science, 24(6), 974-980.

The Weekend University. (2021). The Psychology of Your Future Self— Professor Hal Hershfield. Accessed on May 3, 2022, at https://www.

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