Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Positive Psychology

Life Plans vs. Spontaneity

The alleged benefits of positive thinking are getting a reality check.

If you are going to college, imagine just showing up on the first day of class without having troubled to apply for admission or student aid. That doesn't work. Yet, a tourist who shows up in a new country without a plan can have a wonderful time interacting with locals.

This seeming contradiction is just one example of the outcomes of planners versus wingers. Before the time-urgent, competitive world introduced by the Industrial Revolution, people lived more in the present without much need to plot out their future lives. This phenomenon can be illustrated by looking at a seemingly disconnected phenomenon: interest rates.

Enjoying the Present vs. Maximizing the Future

In preindustrial societies, it was difficult to borrow money (1). The main reason was that if a person had money, they preferred to enjoy it in the present rather than to postpone enjoyment into the remote future. One reason for this was that the future was quite uncertain. Most people did not reach old age and a person's life could be abruptly ended by catching a fatal disease or being involved in unanticipated violence.

Hence, the reluctance to lend money into the distant future. Consequently, borrowing was expensive in terms of high interest rates. Children also have a present focus in their economic activities and are more interested in spending their money now rather than lending it out (1). When they do lend to another child, they require exorbitantly high interest rates of around 50 percent per month.

In modern economies, there is a strong future orientation as people plan decades ahead in their retirement plans and financial management goals. This focus on the future mirrors a high level of confidence that we can lead long healthy lives. This is not unreasonable given that the average life expectancy approximately doubled during the 20th century.

One consequence of this future orientation is that saving rates are comparatively high while interest rates are low so that borrowing money is relatively easy. With increased confidence in our own survival comes increased interest in financial planning and other elements of time consciousness, including a more pronounced awareness of the passage of time.

The Birth of Time-Urgency

Full-fledged time urgency is clearly a product of the Industrial Revolution with its laser focus on churning out as much product per hour as humanly possible. Yet, time urgency in England preceded the mechanization of factory production by more than a century (2).

The British were obsessed with accurate time-keeping resulting in the construction of many village clock towers that were roughly synchronized with the time at the Greenwich observatory.

This period was christened the Industrious Revolution because it was a time of intensified production in homes at a time when private homes were turned into cloth factories that used hand looms (3).

Otherwise, most members of a household might be gainfully employed outside the home.

Because time was valuable, there was a greater interest in its accurate measurement.

The Industrious Revolution witnessed a focus on the profitable use of time for earning money that could be spent on and personal consumption that was largely individual and conducted outside the home. This consumer rat race has strong parallels with the consumerist society of the current period.

Time-urgent societies involve a marked conflict between the merits of accumulating resources to indemnify future comfort and enjoying the fruits of one's labor today.

Planning vs. Living in the Moment

In modern societies, there is a tendency to have one's cake and eat it too. So there is a great deal of pressure to live beyond one's means and many of the people who have maxed out credit cards also put aside money for retirement.

This contradiction is mirrored by conflicting trends in the positive-psychology/motivation-theorist literature. One common criticism of planfulness is that people who set out bold plans and dream big are often setting themselves up for unhappiness when they do not live up to their own ambitious plans.

A deeper, more mystical, issue is that successful outcomes do not always lead to happiness and any bonus from positive outcomes like winning the lottery wears off in time.

Moreover, people who experience unusually adverse life events are not necessarily unhappy. Some are unfailingly resourceful, rise to challenges, and make lemonade from lemons.

Conversely, those who plan for a perfect future are not living in the real world. It is quite unlikely to be realized and they are setting themselves up for disappointment and unhappiness.

The happiest people do not plan their days in detail. They leave plenty of time to go wherever their interests, and impulses, lead them.


1 Clark, G. (2007). A farewell to alms: A brief economic history of the world. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

2 Barber, N. (2020). Evolution in the here and now: How adaptation and social learning explain humanity. Lanham, MD: Prometheus/Rowman and Littlefield.…

3 de Vries, Jan (2008). The industrious revolution: Consumer behavior and the household economy, 1650 to the present. New York: Cambridge University Press.

More from Nigel Barber Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today