Checking In with Your Future Self
Who will you be in 10 years? What will your personality be like, what interests and attitudes will you have? What abilities will you develop? And, will this future version of yourself be similar to or different from the person you are today?
Some people think that their present and future selves are very different from each other, but other people see their present and future selves as pretty much the same. Which type of person do you think experiences greater life satisfaction—both now and 10 years into the future?
On the one hand, change over time might be a good thing. The idea (or myth?) of the American Dream is strongly grounded in the idea that we should be pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps to become better versions of ourselves in the future. There’s even a body of research in psychology about optimism showing that it may be beneficial for our well-being to not just hold positive beliefs about ourselves but to believe that we will continue to get better. So, expecting to be different in the future from how you are now might be beneficial.
Yet, remaining the same over time—or at least thinking that we’ll remain the same over time—could be beneficial too. We know, for instance, that people who see many similarities between their present-day and future selves tend to do things now that will help their future selves. For example, they make more farsighted decisions such as saving more for retirement, exercising more, and making more ethical choices. So, perhaps people who see similarity between their present and future selves tend to make more farsighted and beneficial choices, which could lead to more money, better health, and greater well-being down the road.
To determine whether believing that you will change or remain the same in the future is “better,” we turned to a large dataset from a study called Midlife in the United States. Around 5,000 Americans responded to a survey in 1995 and again in 2005. In the first wave of data collection, among many other questions, respondents were asked to rate their current personality traits (for example, “How calm and even-tempered are you now?”) and also were asked to predict what their identity in 10 years would be like (for example, “How calm and even-tempered do you think you will be 10 years from now?”).
Having answers to both questions allowed us to see how similar people thought they would be over time. And, because the same people were surveyed twice 10 years apart, we could see how satisfied respondents were with their lives 10 years later.
So, which type of person ends up with greater life satisfaction—the one who thinks he or she will change over the next 10 years, or the one who expects to remain the same?
Compared to people who predicted they would change a great deal, people who saw a high degree of similarity between their present self and future self typically experienced greater life satisfaction 10 years later. Put differently, the more similarity people perceived between their present and future selves, the more life satisfaction (and other forms of well-being) they typically experienced 10 years later.
However, it might be the case that people who were satisfied with their lives in 1995 also happened to be the ones who saw themselves as being more similar from one time point to another. If so, perhaps perceived similarly of present and future selves didn’t actually cause greater satisfaction over time. But additional analyses showed that, even when people’s satisfaction in 1995 was taken into account, believing that their future self would be similar to their present self was associated with higher life satisfaction later on.
But, what about the power of optimism? What about the American dream of self-improvement? We were able to look at these questions in the dataset as well. We divided the group of respondents who thought they would be different in the future into people who thought their traits would become more negative and people that predicted their traits would improve. Contrary to what you might expect, greater predicted decline and greater predicted improvement were both associated with lower well-being over time than expecting to remain mostly the same. The direction of people’s predictions didn’t matter—greater perceived dissimilarity in either a negative or positive direction predicted less life satisfaction.
It’s not clear why expecting to change over time is associated with lower well-being than expecting to remain the same. One possibility is that seeing similarity between one’s present and future selves leads people to do more future-oriented things, such as saving money and eating more healthily, and those things, in turn, promote greater satisfaction. Yet, given the nature of our dataset, we couldn’t assess this possibility.
Nonetheless, the results bring into question the American folk wisdom that we should constantly strive to be better and different than who we are now. Perhaps the label “self-improvement” promotes the wrong notion. Instead, perhaps thinking about changing our behavior rather than changing our identity would be more beneficial in the long run.
For Further Reading
Reiff, J. S., Hershfield, H. E., & Quoidbach, J. (2020). Identity over time: Perceived similarity between selves predicts well-being ten years later. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(2), 160-167.
Joseph Reiff is a doctoral student in the Behavioral Decision Making Area at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.
Hal Hershfield is an associate professor of Marketing, Behavioral Decision Making, and Psychology at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.