Using Time Perspectives in a Healthy Way.

Live your life in the present based on experience and optimism.

Posted May 15, 2018

What used to be, used to be. What will be tomorrow, will be tomorrow. You’re in the now, now.

As much as we may or may not want to accept this fact, there really is no constancy in life. Every moment is unique. The moments may often seem like ones we’re experienced before; but, this is only a perception. We bring this issue up because many of us want our life today to be just like it was in the past. For example, we may want to be as physically active, or as content in our jobs, or as carefree as we were weeks, months, or years ago. This is a natural desire and one we should not minimize. However, reality must play a role in our desires. As time goes on, events, circumstances, and relationships change—sometimes for the better and sometimes not.

For those who had a wonderful job, or a great marriage, or a high physical endurance but now find themselves with a terrible boss, or a spouse who died recently, or slowly decreasing stamina may lament the loss of “the good life.” Would such a response do any good for our psychological and physical health today?

Focusing on the past while in the present can have a positive or negative effect. The same could be said for those who tend to focus on the future. That is, some people may spend a lot of time worrying about what’s going to happen tomorrow, next week, or even months from now. Whereas others may be inclined to daydream about the future to an extraordinary degree (e.g., spending hours thinking about what life would be like if they were married to a certain individual or how they would spend their money if they had a high paying job or won the lottery).

How are you oriented? Generally, children are more present oriented; future orientation increases with age. Women tend to be more future oriented than men who are often present oriented (Park et al., 2017). In addition, people who are conscientious seem to focus on the future and those who are impulsive are more present oriented (Park et al, 2017).

Other important aspects to consider when exploring time orientation is the positive or negative perspective. That is, how do you view your past, present, and future? As mentioned earlier, if you focus on negative aspects of your past, present, or even consider them for your future, your life situation will be greatly affected, which in turn can impact on life outcomes, such as happiness and health (Zimbardo & Boyd, 2008).

Bearing this in mind, what orientation should we adopt? Those who advocate for mindfulness may highlight our tendencies to focus on the past and future, and how spending time in these orientations can result in our failure to live in the present. Is this so terrible? Can we not profit from looking at our past and learning from it or reliving happy memories? Do we not benefit when we make plans for our future that will improve our lives rather than relinquish all concern for tomorrow?

Perhaps the best approach may be that we should engage in all three time orientations and call upon them when necessary. That is, when feeling low, it may be the time to think about events or people in the past who made us feel happy. Or, we can encourage ourselves to think about what we can do now to alleviate that unhappiness and work toward a “happier tomorrow.” In essence, it is the present and the psychological state we find ourselves in now that may influence whether we remain currently focused or look to our past or future. If we are feeling satisfied with our life, our tendency to reflect on our past or future is reduced. However, if we are currently unhappy or worried, looking to our past or our future may reduce these negative feelings—but only if our focus on those time frames are on the positive aspects and not on those that will reinforce sadness or anxiety.

Life is to be lived in the present based on what we have learned from our past and our optimism for a better future. We should not diminish the importance of experience or hope in striving to live a psychologically healthy life today.

References

Park, G., Schwartz, H. A., Sap, M., Kern, M. L., Weingarten, E., Eichstaedt, J. C., … Seligman, M. E. P. (2017). Living in the past, present, and future: Measuring temporal orientation with language. Journal of Personality, 85, 270-280. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12239

Zimbardo, P. G., & Boyd, J. (2008). The time paradox: The new psychology of time that will change your life. New York: Free Press.