The seeds of Hal Hershfield’s new book were planted during the financial crisis that gripped the nation in 2008. Watching the Great Recession unfold, he began to wonder why it was so easy for people to take risks that they really shouldn’t.
Hershfield, a professor of marketing and behavioral decision making at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, decided to investigate the retirement crisis — a “slow-moving catastrophe,” he calls it — in which people are living longer and saving less, leaving them without resources for retirement.
Hershfield, who earned his doctorate in psychology from Stanford University, approached the research not as an economist but as a psychologist. He examined how people relate to their future selves, and how those relationships influence the decisions we people make, or don’t make, in the present.
The result is “Your Future Self: How to Make Tomorrow Better Today,” which will be published June 6. One of its key findings is that when people think about their future selves, their brain activity mirrors the type of activity that occurs when they think about complete strangers. In an interview, Hershfield spoke about how to make “future you” a part of your present, the need to forgive your past missteps and why you might want to consider writing letters to yourself.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
How did your research for the book evolve?
For years now, I’ve been doing research looking at how emotionally connected people are to their future selves, and I’ve investigated these relationships in a variety of contexts — from financial health to physical health, from ethical decision making to overall life satisfaction.
One study I describe in the book is a neuro-imaging project that I conducted years ago, and the punchline was that on a neuro level, our future selves look more like the way other people look to us. This was really surprising because it suggested that on some deep level, we may think of our futures selves as if they’re other people. And I began to wonder if what really matters is the type of relationship we have with our future selves.
What have you learned about how people can better connect to their future selves?
The book is full of concrete things one can do, but one of the more abstract ones is to start creating a conversation with your future self. Make that more a part of your life, so that when you’re making big decisions that are going to have impacts and consequences later on, you are thinking about that push and pull between your present and future selves.
In the book, I go through a couple of different strategies, one of which is to try to increase that connection with one’s future self by trying to imagine the future more vividly through an exercise where you write a letter to — and then from — your future self.
I also talk about trying to figure out what parts of your life are going off course, then creating pre-commitments to a certain course of action.
Your book not only looks at the future self, but also offers some guidance for thinking about the past.
One of the other things I feel is important is forgiving our past selves in a genuine way. We can recognize where we’ve gone wrong in the past, but then also have some compassion for ourselves. You can’t go back and change what you did in the past, but you can change what you’re going to do moving forward.
The book tries to give a sense of agency to people moving from the present to the future. And if you’re stuck on what you’ve done wrong, it’s going to cause people to sort of bury their heads in the sand. And that’s not what we want.
Why, for so many people, does just thinking about the future cause anxiety?
There‘s a variety of factors at play here. One is that we live in the present; we don’t live in the future. So we’d be forgiven for focusing on now rather than later because that’s what’s happening now. The problem is when we pay too much attention to “right now” and fail to consider “later.”
Another problem that arises is when we are motivated in some way to think that future me will suddenly take care of all the things that present me has not taken care of.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
I want readers to come away with more harmony between who they are now and who they will be. And I don’t necessarily want everyone to stop having fun today in order to save more, or to start eating only healthy foods. That’s only part of the equation.
What I’m trying to do is create more harmony and balance between who people are now and who they are going to become, so that they are satisfied now with their choices and that they are still satisfied with them later. I want them to be glad about the things they did — and glad they didn’t do what they didn’t do.