Think back to last January for a minute — did you make a New Year’s resolution? If you’re like 62% of the population, then you likely did. But did you achieve that goal you made all those months ago? Not unless you’re one of the lucky 8%. Have you ever wondered why?
Research conducted by Professor Hal Hershfield at the UCLA Anderson School of Management may have the answer. Making plans and setting goals may come easy to us, but we struggle to achieve them partly because our brains are poorly designed to make an emotional connection with our future selves.
The regions of our brain that light up when we think about ourselves in the future are the same that light up when we think of another person. It sounds weird, but think about it—how much does your future self feel like you?
Our disconnect with our future selves may well be due to the emotional power of the present moment. And emotions are the way we relate to ourselves. Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” certainly rang true in the 17th century. But neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s work shows that “I feel, therefore I am” would’ve been the better phrase all along.
Is this a neural defect that smothers our chances of ever reaching our goals? Quite the contrary: It is nature’s protective strategy to eliminate our certain demise from the forefront of our minds, so we can actually pull our socks up and work toward what’s important. Here are three steps that can help:
Step #1: Create the Right Environment
The emotional mind is impulsive — and quick. Before we can get the “long-term” brain to kick in and speak up, we’ve already been hijacked by the present moment. Which is why making the present both distraction-free and temptation-free is to our advantage. If you’re trying to finish an important project, make sure your social media accounts are turned off and your phone is out of sight. And if you’re trying to stick to a certain diet that’s beneficial for you in the long term, do NOT leave that brioche on the kitchen counter. In fact, don’t bring it home at all!
Step #2: Visualize with the Ecosystem in Mind
Visualization is a powerful tool that pulls us toward the future. But Dr. Hershfield’s research shows that people who can visualize their future selves and stick to their long-term goals are also less empathetic. Somehow, obsessing about our future well-being makes us more selfish and egocentric. Here’s a better way to visualize the future: Instead of asking what you want, ask what the world needs of you, then fit your goals into a larger purpose that’s greater than yourself.
Step #3: Build Empathy Toward Others
Since our future selves are akin to another person in the brain, building a deeper connection with who we will become is about building greater empathy. The more we can train ourselves to feel for others, to enter their world with kindness, and to be moved to help them through their struggles, the greater our desire for our own future well-being. And there’s an added bonus: Strengthening the muscle of compassion cultivates the ability to hold on to multiple perspectives and reach the next stage of adult development.
There’s absolutely no part in the brain that’s allocated to the “self” alone. We’re wired to see ourselves in relation to other people and other places, whether these are in the past, present, or future. Strengthening these relationships builds the autobiographical self that weaves the story of our lives and brings meaning to our existence.