Balancing how you perceive the past, present, and future can help you be happier, healthier, and more satisfied in life. Adopt practices that help you find your ideal balance.
Our listener Chris DM’d us on Instagram to say:
“I really love the podcast. It’s good to know that I’m not alone in my thoughts and anxiety. The episode with Kristen Ley (you don’t have to be the best) and the episode about “shoulding” have been particularly liberating, especially having a new baby in the house.
In this week’s episode, y’all talk about Headspace. I used to use it for meditation, too, until I discovered Calm. It’s an app that not only guides you through meditation but has stretching routines for different times of day, breathing exercises, and grownup bedtime stories. Plus, the app is beautiful. Check it out, if you get a chance.”
We also received this five-star review from Enneagirl called “Sister wisdom on living your best life.” She writes, “Melia and Gillian have a fun, laid-back way of providing insight and inspiration regarding how to live one’s best life. They do a fantastic job of balancing a desire to make improvements with accepting life on life’s terms. Can’t thank you enough for your work!”
Thank you both so much. It makes us really happy to hear people describe exactly the kind of experience we want to give our listeners, so we’re glad the podcast is landing that way. Please keep the feedback coming. If you’ve been meaning to email us or leave a review, here’s a little nudge!
Balancing the Past, Present, and Future
Do you tend to long for the past, wish for the future or appreciate the present?
Melia was thinking about this recently when she had a meeting in the building where she used to work. It brought back a lot of emotions for her. She loved the four years she worked there, and she met some of her best friends there. She started missing that time, and it made her think about how she tends to think about the past fondly – often more so than the present.
It turns out that there’s a lot of research on this subject. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo developed a concept called time perspective, based on how people perceive the past, present or future.
Zimbardo and his team have found five distinct time perspectives that people have. Think about where you fall in each of these categories – high to low:
- Past-Negative (you see the past as mostly unpleasant)
- Past-Positive (you see the past as mostly pleasant)
- Present-Hedonistic (you see the present as full of pleasure and you aren’t worried about the consequences of your behavior in the future)
- Present-Fatalistic (you see the present and the future as determined by fate, and your actions won’t change them)
- Future (you set goals and take action to achieve them)
So what is the optimal time profile? A balanced time perspective. Zimbardo describes this as: “High on past-positive. Moderately high on future. And moderate on present-hedonism. And always low on past-negative and present-fatalism.”
The past-positive perspective gives you roots. It helps you connect with your family and your identity. The future perspective is a springboard to new goals and challenges. And the present hedonism perspective gives you energy to appreciate experiences, people and places right now.
If you’re interested where you fall in the different time perspectives, you can take a quiz on Zimbardo’s website. Research shows that people with balanced time perspective score higher in happiness, optimism, well-being and life satisfaction. They also demonstrate a stronger sense of self-efficacy and purpose in life.
Resilience coach AJ Adams helps her clients develop a Balanced Time Perspective. She writes: “It’s extremely important that they learn to cultivate an appreciation for what they have experienced in the past, a sense of gratitude and engagement in the present, and sense of hope and well-established goals for the future. In my experience, Thrivers know how to flexibly switch between time perspectives, even if they give more favor to one over the others.”
Our Time Perspectives
Melia has mentioned before on the podcast that she has noticed she tends to live in the past, while other people live more in the future, so it was exciting to see that research confirms this observation.
Melia is high in the past-positive category, thinking about the past with rose-colored glasses. For example, she’ll long for the days where she worked closely with her best friends and forget about all of the frustrating red tape and political dynamics she had to deal with while for the government. Her whole Reschool Yourself project was about a school do-over, to reconnect with the happy moments and reprogram the unhappy ones. She loves looking at old photos, reading old journal entries and listening to ‘90s music.
Melia is also high in the present-hedonistic category; she invests more resources in Present Melia than Future Melia. She sets a lot of short-term goals but doesn’t think that far into the future in general, perhaps because the unknown gives her anxiety. She doesn’t want to be let down if the future doesn’t live up to her hopes for it.
When Gill isn’t very balanced with her time perspective, she tends to go back and forth between focusing a lot on present-hedonistic and future perspectives. She’ll enjoy something fun that is happening right now, while avoiding planning for something less fun in the future. Or she’ll plan all of the exciting things she wants to do in the future, instead of the mundane stuff happening right now.
Moving so often in her 20s and early 30s really shaped how she looks at the past (and also the present and future). Every move, she cries through all of the “lasts” and the goodbyes but is mostly able to adopt a past-positive attitude about it, remembering the good times in a place. But she can also wallow a bit in the past when she first arrives in a new place and hasn’t yet met a new group of friends.
Now that she’s moved enough, she’s able to recognize that the end of one chapter is necessary to begin another. It helps to see that friendships can still survive and grow, even with distance.
Strategies to Cultivate a Balanced Time Perspective
What can we do to try to cultivate Zimbardo’s optimal blend of time perspectives? Again, that’s high on past-positive. Moderately high on future. And moderate on present-hedonism. Low on past-negative and present-fatalism. Here are a few strategies to try.
- Savor nostalgia intentionally.
Looking back on happy memories can actually inspire more optimism for the present and the future, according to research.
Clinical psychologist Wayne Pernell says: “A sense of longing for what was has been shown not to enhance wellbeing, especially in older adults. (But) when older adults are encouraged to recount the good things that happened in their lives, a renewed sense of wellbeing ensues. When we reflect on the positive, we relive it, as if it is the present.”
The mind processes this stroll down on memory lane as if it’s happening right now – and it can increase production of dopamine, which can give you a feel-good boost in the moment and make you feel more optimistic about what’s to come.
Melia experienced this recently when Evan finished kindergarten and had a promotion ceremony to first grade. He’s been with the same teachers for 3 years, so everyone was emotional that the kids were moving on. Afterward, she scrolled through photos of him as a baby and a toddler. Seeing all those happy moments gave her the warm fuzzies and made her more optimistic that there would be plenty more to come.
2. Practice a healthy detachment by expecting beginnings and endings as part of the natural life cycle of events.
When Melia left a previous job that she loved, she was impressed by how her good friend Emily took it in stride when she told her she was leaving. Emily used to dance with a professional company in New York, and she said it taught her to be matter-of-fact about people moving on. They’d get a new gig, so one day they’d be there and the next they wouldn’t, and she would be glad for the time they had together but expect that it would be fleeting. She didn’t try to hang on to it.
It reminded Melia of what Gill wrote in response to a recent Instagram post about Evan accidentally breaking Melia’s favorite wine glass:
“Brian and I always say that we never really own wine glasses — we just hold them for a little while on their way to the recycling bin. Since I break things often, it helps me be more Zen about it.”
Similarly, Darren said he treats his beloved coffee mug as if it’s broken already: “I assume it’ll be broken at some point, so every day I have with it is a bonus.”
This kind of healthy detachment is a very Buddhist approach to peace of mind. Buddhism teaches that clinging to ideas, objects, experiences and even people creates suffering, and letting go of expectations and attachments is the way to happiness.
3. When closing a chapter, acknowledge what it has given you.
Gill was talking with her good friend Kelly about this the other day. She’s part of Gill’s great crew of Hawaii friends. Their husbands were on the same ship, and they’ve all stayed close. Kelly and her family are still moving with the Navy, gearing up for one from Singapore back to the States. She’s thinking about saying goodbye to a place that she loves but knew was only for a short period of time.
Kelly said: “I feel like the saying “friends are for a season, a reason or life” is also relevant to the places we’ve lived. I think we can all pinpoint the ones that we can call “home” and the ones we will always miss but know we will never experience again.”
Gill and Kelly compared the places you live to relationships: some are short-lived flings you can look back on fondly (or with happiness that they’re over), some are lasting relationships. For Kelly, Singapore was a super fun short infatuation, and Hawaii feels long term, a place where they could build a life. Kelly said she can appreciate all of the different places for the purpose they served at the time.
But all of these places and times have value. Appreciate what you learned or what you can take away from each of them. Think of it like Marie Kondo’s approach of decluttering and making space for a fresh start – by thanking possessions for their service before you send them on their way. Acknowledge what these experiences have meant to you and then release them.
4. Think: “These are the good old days.”
Remember that what you are doing in the present will become those happy memories you’ll back on in the future. Practice savoring the present moment – tuning into what’s going on around you. Notice and appreciate your surroundings and the people you’re with, and feel gratitude to be here right now.
Melia thinks of this often when her kids are being sweet and playful. She looks at the dimples on Avery’s chubby arms and Evan’s mischievous smile and knows that one day, she will look back fondly on this time, in spite of all the challenging moments of raising two young kids.
5. Be kind to your future self.
A moderately high score on the future time perspective helps you make plans and take actions that will benefit your future self, not just what is appealing right now. This perspective empowers you to focus on long-term goals, get work done and adopt healthy habits – so you can save for retirement, meet your deadlines without stress and get a cavity-free checkup at your next dental visit.
When you don’t feel like investing in practices that have a very distant payoff, try to picture your future self. What small decisions can you make now that will benefit the you of 6 months or even 20 years from now?
Imagining her future self benefiting from current actions is helpful for Gill when she is struggling to do something that has no deadline or outer accountability. Right now, it’s helping her get more involved in her finances and invest in what she wants to do years from now, and put effort into meaningful work (like this podcast!).
Melia is inspired by this quote from Sean Patrick Flanery: “Do something today that your future self will thank you for.”
Here’s a recap of the strategies for fostering a balanced time perspective:
- Savor nostalgia intentionally.
- Practice a healthy detachment by expecting beginnings and endings.
- When closing a chapter, acknowledge what it has given you.
- Think: “These are the good old days.”
- Be kind to your future self.
Get It Together / Got It Together
We each share something that’s going well for us at the moment, and something else that we’d like to work on.
Melia Get It Together: Losing items around the house
Melia Got It Together: Reading more books
Gill’s Get It Together: Putting off house projects
Gill’s Got It Together: Making time to work on a side hustle
Get In Touch
How do you perceive the past, present and future? How do you cultivate a balanced time perspective? If you try these strategies, which ones work for you? Email us at podcast[at]semitogether.com, or send us a voice memo. You can also leave a comment on Facebook or Instagram.
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- Philip Zimbardo’s time perspective research
- Overview of time perspective types
- Time perspective quiz
- Psychology Today article: “The Great Balancing Act: A Fresh Take on Time”
- Positive Psychology article: “Measuring Balanced Time Perspective using Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory”
- Shine article: “Need to Find Your Motivation? Turn Up the Nostalgia”
- Mindful article: “A 5-Minute Gratitude Practice: Savor the Moment by Tapping into Your Senses”
- The KonMari Method
- Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song by Sara Bareilles