A while ago, I bumped into an idea that troubled me. It is that as a species, humans have a hard time seeing into the future. It is hard for us to connect with our future selves. Dan Pink posited that this may be why young people have a hard time saving for their retirement. It seems to them as if they are giving money away to someone else. The Heath Bros. confirmed this idea — and argued that this is why we so often make poor decisions. We over-estimate our ability to see the future consequences of our choices.
Since then, I have been thinking a lot about this future blindness. How does it affect our happiness? You might think that the effect is minor — as long as we are happy in the present. Of course, there is a risk that we may not be able to sustain that present state. That the party might end. But we can accept the risk (as we do so often in modern life, for example, when we step onto an airplane). And if the current party ends, we can hope to find another that might even be better.
But Dan Kahneman rained on that parade. Dan pointed out that we experience happiness as two separate selves. There is the experiencing self (the one at the dinner table) and the remembering self (the one waking up later with a stomach ache). Here is the thing – the remembering self dominates how we view our happiness.
In other words, no matter how much we think that we live in the present, we do not. It is a mirage. We interpret our present experiences in light of our memories and less so on what we actually are doing. The present adds only incrementally to our stew of memory. And so in this sense, our present, and ergo our future, are shaped by our past memories of experiences that have left long term neuron imprints that echo through our lives. As Csikszentmihalyi argued, our happiness hinges on how we interpret experience. Not in the experience itself. The party in the present is fun if we connect it to the memory of what fun is all about. And so, one might feel blissfully happy in sub-zero weather risking death while scaling up the side of a mountain just to see if he or she can get to the top.
So the idea of living for the moment is a bit of a myth. We enjoy what we remember that we should enjoy and forget the actual experience itself as soon as it is over.
So isn’t it odd then that we have such poor vision of our future selves? If creating great memories is the key to having a happy life, you would think that we would spend lots of energy figuring out how to create them. But apparently, we don’t. Most of us spend our time instead, arranging our present moments so that they will last into the future as long as possible (again the party hound idea). Research suggests that fear of loss trumps questing for opportunity (again Kahneman). Whether our blindness to the future causes an obsession with prolonging the present, or our obsession with the present blinds us to the future, seems not to matter. The effect is the same. We do not place ourselves in strategically optimal positions to live happily. Oops.
This is why Csikszentmihalyi argued forcefully against passive ways to reduce psychic entropy, like watching TV. Watching TV does reduce the stress we feel from unwanted brain messaging (psychic entropy). And for that reason, it can have a positive effect on the psyche. But it also locks us into passive enjoyment in the present rather than active happiness over time. Csikszentmihalyi went further, warning that our consumer culture seduces us into believing that this sort of passivity is normal, when in fact, it is highly risky. We don’t become active unless we practice being active.
So back to our original problem – our rather weak capacity to see into the future. We can’t just “party on” and expect happiness to follow. To the contrary, this is a recipe for getting stuck in addiction. I think the best we can do to get beyond this is to work on creating “future anchors“. These are visions of things that we want to be in the future. Not just fantasies based on ego gratification (like what I would do if I had a billion dollars and looked like Cary Grant and was as smart as Isaac Newton). We are talking instead about things we — as real people — want to become in relation to the real people around us. These visions help us construct real life histories.
You might ask, why bring others into play? Why not just imagine who I want to be myself? This is a good question. The reason the question is good is that our instincts are oriented to aggrandizing the self. We need to be the heroes of our life stories. And the surest way to injure a person is to take away that possibility. As Frankl pointed out, inmates in concentration camps let go of life less because of the suffering they experienced than because of the sense that the suffering was meaningless. So we cannot ignore that we find meaning through the sense that the self has meaning.
But there is a trick here. And Csikszentmihalyi helps us see it. We cannot act in a vacuum. Our self-generated estimates of how great (or meaningful) we are, hinge at least in part on the assessments of others — especially people who have expertise (or at least credibility) that we respect. In other words, our future selves cannot live happily alone. We are happy when we create happiness in the eyes of those we love and respect.
As Lafley & Martin point out, targeting how we want to connect with others in the future, in light of what they do, creates the best possible formula to decide how to “gamify” experience. It opens the door to a cascading set of strategic choices that are based on achieving the connection between others whom we love and our heroic selves. It answers the question “what is winning“, and anchors our attention on that idea. And we know from our gaming experience, that once that choice is made, it is fun to play the game (even if we are not perfect at it).
You might think of the above as an algorithm. We started from a point of weakness and step by step, we moved closer to building the strategic capacity to address that weakness. Once the algorithm is plugged into daily life, it allows us to re-interpret our experience and re-frame our memories. This helps us see opportunities where before there were only brick walls.