Don't Be So Sure You Know What Will Make Your Future Self Happy


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I frequently tell the story of being in graduate school and announcing to a roomful of people (it was in context in Sociology of the Family):

My boyfriend and I live together and it's the same thing as being married.

I was no older than 20 and the other students were much older. Upon my proclamation that cohabitation was no different from being married, the entire class laughed at me. Hard. And let me just add that when I got married in my mid-30s, I can confidently say it felt completely different than cohabitation. And I had cohabitated with my now-husband. It. Is. Not. The. Same.


On a related note, in my mid-20s I didn't want to date men who wanted children because I didn't want children and I wasn't a casual dater. I was sure I would never change my mind. Never. Guess who has a tween daughter?


While we're at it, have you ever seen a story on the news that involved bystanders and said to yourself, "I wouldn't have just stood by. I would have done something." How do you know?


My point here is that you don't know how you're going to feel about a decision, a change, or an event until you're actually experiencing it, nor do you know how you would respond in a situation despite believing you do. Here are the primary reasons why:

  • The only information you have to go on is your past. We're constantly changing with our experiences. Our perspectives, biases, preferences, and habits change. This makes for terrible cognitive forecasting. In the face of a big change, our predictions about how we will react are based on the past.

  1. Either we've never experienced anything like it before and we make assumptions based on similar things from the past; or

  2. we've experienced something like it before and we make assumptions based on the past; or

  3. we've never experienced it before and we ask other people who have, and then we make assumptions based on their past. This is a false equivalence.

  • In mindfulness courses, toward the end of the eight weeks, we discuss endings. People frequently say, "I'm not good at endings." However, just as with each time we do a focused-attention practice or a body scan, I say, "You've done it before, but you haven't done it this time," the same goes true for endings, and everything else. But we tell ourselves stories that we believe. I'm like this. Meanwhile, we've heard that past performance doesn't predict future results in other contexts, but there's part of us that doesn't believe it. (Read about The End of History Illusion for more.) We limit ourselves with our narratives, when those narratives are mere thoughts. Narratives are thoughts we give power to. And we don't need to.

  • Our minds change just like our bodies do with our daily habits. This is happening right now—you're either becoming more or less like you were a week ago through what you're doing and thinking. If you don't change anything you do, you'll be even more like you were last week, and if you do change something, you'll be less like you were last week. You can change the way your body looks and feels by changing the way you eat, drink, sleep, and exercise, and you can become a person with different values, hopes, and dreams, for instance, through a daily mindfulness practice and by attending multi-day silent retreats. When you reduce your alcohol consumption, that often comes with spending less time with certain people, and little-by-little, you develop a different social experience that comes with different biases, mindsets, and choices. When you taper your social media consumption, that too changes who you are. When you opt out of spending time with someone who is reliably draining, that changes who you are. All these changes are due to you changing the input—the ingredients that combine to create who and how you are from moment to moment.

I'm a different person than I was 30 years ago. Even 10 years ago. Five. I want different things from life, largely due to my mindfulness practice, which began about 20 years ago when I read Jon Kabat-Zinn's Wherever You Go There You Are, which is intriguingly subtitled: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. Its contents aren't about formal practice. They're about tiny moments of awakening—inhabiting your life and knowing that's what you're doing. Fast forward 20 years and I set boundaries I wasn't able to set, I don't engage with people who are clearly unhealthy for me (and I see that earlier), and I now observe as others play certain games rather than playing the game. I'm less interested in outcomes I was once sure I wanted and had timelines for. My consumption habits are different. I look forward to the next time I'm able to attend a week-long silent retreat, in person. And if you told me 20 years ago this is where I would be, I would have laughed and said, No way; that's not for me.


Are you the same person you were 10 years ago?


One of the powerful things you learn through mindfulness practice is the impact of small things. Small changes, events that don't seem important (I read that Kabat-Zinn book because I overheard a conversation), seemingly insignificant choices. Habits. They can change the trajectory of your life. An accident of geography (I ended up here rather than there) can change your life. Luck can change your life. The drama of big events and decisions, and the attention and intention we put on them, overshadows the reality that we're changing constantly due to our circumstances, our behavior, and our mindset. We don't notice until we notice. And to do that, we need to be open. We need to allow our transformations big and small, experience them, and honor them. We need to bathe them in awareness and intention.


Laurie Paul's wonderful book, Transformative Experience delves into consequences of the reality that we are built for change as well as the reality that we simply don't have the right kind of information to make some decisions because we don't know what our future self is going to be like. Through our daily habits, we're becoming a certain person. And although we might achieve that goal of the future self we intentionally were crafting, we don't actually know what that self is going to be like. We don't know if they will be happy. We don't know what kinds of decisions they will make. We don't know what will be important to them.


If you're in the business of helping people make decisions, just remember that you can have wonderful decision hygiene and factor in all of the information you have and the desires of the person you're working with, and that doesn't mean the decision will end up being a "good" one or that it will make the person happy or necessarily improve their well-being.


Have a peaceful day.

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PS-As always, check out Nicholas Epley's Mindwise, and all things Daniel Gilbert.