A few years ago, one of my children became obsessed with roller coasters. He watched video after video to study them from afar. He designed his own in computer games. There was just one problem: He was terrified of actually riding one.
Eventually, he identified the “Sooper Dooper Looper” at Hersheypark as a potential option: It wasn’t too tall or too fast, and had only one inversion. But when we actually went to the park, he started to lose his nerve. I knew he would regret it if he didn’t ride the roller coaster after all that, so I reminded him that in two minutes, the ride would be over. Even if he hated it, it was only two minutes (1:45, to be exact). I told him to picture himself on the other side of those two minutes.
So he did, and then he rode the coaster. And when it was over, he was really glad he’d tried it. I, meanwhile, was glad that a trick I use often had worked once again. This skill of picturing our future selves is fundamental for discipline — but it’s also important for happiness, which is just as important.
Be kind to your future self
Humans are pretty bad at picturing our future selves. Research has found that when we think about them, the brain regions that are activated are similar to those activated when we think about strangers — but not as much to those activated when we think about our current selves.
This may be one reason that people under-save for retirement. Or why we stay up too late — because, as Jerry Seinfeld once observed, a lack of sleep is “Morning Guy’s problem.” But the same research found that when people could actually see (simulated) pictures of their aged selves, then they made better choices.
This suggests the wisdom of really picturing ourselves on the other side of any hard choice. For instance, you might remember that in the past, you’ve always felt exhilarated after an invigorating sunrise run. Presumably “Future You” will feel the same way. Picture yourself on the other side of the unpleasantly cold moment when you actually have to swing your legs out of bed and put your feet on the floor. Instead, focus on coming home, rosy-cheeked and on a runner’s high.
This is really discipline in a nutshell. By picturing ourselves on the other side, we don’t have to choose what is immediately easy.
Get disciplined about happiness
Of course, it’s not just about discipline and choosing what’s good for us. Picturing ourselves on the other side can actually lead to a lot more happiness. That’s because the “self” is really multiple selves. The psychology researcher Daniel Kahneman offers a helpful rubric: There’s an “experiencing self” (what you are doing and feeling right now) and a “remembering self” (where you mentally spend a lot of your time — thinking about memories and what you’ve done in the past). I often think about my anticipating self, too — the part that’s dreaming and wondering about the future.
Your anticipating and remembering selves want you to do all kinds of wonderful things. Your anticipating self would like to take a spin on that outdoor ice rink downtown that everyone’s talking about. Your remembering self will have fond memories of those twinkling lights, the gleaming ice, and the amazing hot chocolate you sipped afterwards. Unfortunately, your experiencing self is the one who actually has to get off the couch, bundle up, and drive downtown in the cold. She resents this division of labor, and so she suggests you skip it and do what’s easiest in the moment: stay home and watch TV. Which is fun, but probably not as fun and memorable as the ice rink.
The only solution to this constant happiness dilemma is to picture yourself on the other side. If you’re excited about doing something, most likely you’ll be happy to have done it. You just have to go through a short time of something challenging to emerge to this happy state.
I’m certainly trying to remind myself of this as I embark on several big projects. I’m writing a book that involves a long and complicated time diary study, and that often feels hard and intimidating. But I’ve written other books. I know that eventually I will hold this book in my hand. My family is undertaking a big and complicated house renovation. But eventually we will move into our lovely new home. I can picture us on the other side, and it helps me to hold steady through the mess.
As for my coaster-curious child? He wound up riding several more roller coasters before we left the park. Turns out they’re pretty fun, even for the experiencing self. Good thing he pictured himself on the other side first.
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