Happiness Is Understanding Your Three Selves

Image by Fosco Lucarelli on Flickr

There’s an important line in the first chapter of Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling On Happiness that puts a lot of things in perspective. To Gilbert, it is a cornerstone for all our behavior and many of our emotions. It reads as follows:

The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future.

This is obviously a blessing and curse. It’s hard to believe, too, but I think this is correct. Yes, some animals exhibit what appears to be future-weighted behavior. For example, Gilbert acknowledges that squirrels have some ingrained foresight, given their habit of storing food away for the coming winter. But this and other future-oriented behaviors from the animal kingdom are often a product of biological rhythm. In the case of the squirrel, this hoarding behavior is triggered by the shortening of days, the reduced hours of sunlight.

In other words, it is externally-triggered, automated, instinctual behavior. There is no internal struggle. The squirrel doesn’t question the importance of burying acorns. It doesn’t write a thought piece titled “I Quit Storing Acorns For A Year; Here’s What Happened.” It doesn’t long for a day when someone else could do all that work for them. It doesn’t procrastinate.

So we humans have this very distinct privilege, this wonderful gift, and we use it to marvelous effect. The power to think about the future, build prediction, weigh alternatives for best return, practice restraint in the presence of immediate gratification, and learn from our mistakes is all powered by this prognostication.

Again, this is a really great thing. Like a wonder drug. But like a drug, it isn’t perfect and so I’ll list the trade-offs in the fashion of those disclaimers you get from a pharmaceutical commercial.

Side effects include feelings of regret, ungratefulness, frustration, anger, anxiety, advanced loss aversion, increased hindsight bias, heightened expectations, increased stress, moments of distraction, confusion, indecision, fear, and a general sense that things aren’t all that great.

Indeed, just about every negative emotion and irrational behavior is derived from our thoughts of the future. Any future. It could be the near-term future brought on by the choice of food at a restaurant (salad or cheeseburger?) or the long-term future derived from one’s choice of university.

Such future thinking is wrought with stress. Turning it off always brings relief. This is why mindfulness is such a powerful, helpful practice. This is why The Power Of Now continues to sell copies. The power is real.

Your Tired Present Self

There are three versions of you: your past self, current self, and future self.

Depending on your demeanor, you might be critical of all three versions. You might say your past self was a wastrel, a bad decision-maker. You might say your current self isn’t nearly what you want it to be. As a result, you’ll think your future self is heading in a bad direction, too.

It’s normal for all of us to think this way at some point. Regardless of circumstance. In fact, circumstance has very little to do with our inherent sense of happiness. If we continually think about the future and the past, our present self suffers whether we are a jet-setting billionaire or the lone clerk working at the last Blockbuster Video store.

So your present self is quite tired of fighting all its competing desires. And frankly, it has enough to deal with.

The most-obvious advice, then, is to stop thinking about the future. Put yourself in a perpetual state of present awareness.

Easier said than done.

Most of us can’t pretend to not think about the future. Or the past. So when our mindfulness starts to drift, the next-best thing is to hold perspective on what your present self is trying to do. Specifically, let this article be a reminder that your present self is doing the very best it can to make your future self happy.

In fact, your present self is so committed to your future self that it (a) won’t quit that crummy job, (b) won’t eat that ice cream sundae, (c) won’t buy that expensive thing it really wants.

Your present self will go through the daily grind on a Monday morning because it wants your future self to have more resources.

Your present self will also look back at past decisions and behaviors to find the best way to avoid your future self from suffering repeated mistakes.

Indeed, in virtually every way imaginable, your present self is an incredible, deeply-committed altruist that seems to only want what is best for your future.

As Gilbert writes,

We treat our future selves as though they were children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy.

We lose sight of this every time we are self-critical or frustrated. Though something you do might seem imperfect, chances are you’ve done the best you could in that moment, as that present self, and the anger that follows is nothing more than hindsight bias.

The phrase “I knew it all along,” is what we say when we feel regret. But in fact, we didn’t know all along. Our present self did the best it could with the information it had combined with the emotional and physiological conditions it felt. It’s hard to believe once your present self, in that moment, transforms into your past self. You might then think you were an idiot. This is where a big misunderstanding occurs.

Our Past Selves Are Misunderstood

I’ll try to explain this more simply: your past self, much like your present self, always did the best it could. It tried to find the best way to make you happy against the limited perspective, the peer pressure, the crushing weight of responsibilities, and faulty expectations. It didn’t have the knowledge of your present self or future self. It didn’t have a clear sense of options. And maybe it was tired. And hungry.

Consider how easily that is forgotten when things go right — or rather, when things go as we expected. We judge our past selves on this one single criterion all the time. Consider it this way:

If our past self makes a choice based on a prediction of the future …

And we actually experience something that is as good or better than predicted …

We deem our past self and current self a genius.

But since we are usually inept at prediction, we usually don’t feel like a genius. We feel something worse: a feeling that things are going off-track. This makes us panicky, scared, and angry with ourselves. As Gilbert writes:

No one likes to be criticized, of course, but if the things we successfully strive for do not make our future selves happy, or if the things we unsuccessfully avoid do, then it seems reasonable (if somewhat ungracious) for [our present selves] to cast a disparaging glance backward and wonder what the hell we [our past selves] were thinking.

What Gilbert describes here is a persistent thought habit that is especially present in any Type A personality. It is a hard habit to break. Because we try to fix it with other thought habits.

This leads to overthinking. And there aren’t many ways to fix that but the ways that do exist are quite effective. They involve … less thinking. And that works for a time. Until we fall back into the loop of predictive, future-focused fixations that got us there in the first place. Then we have to start over.

The Takeaway

If this exposition seems circuitous and recursive, then rest-assured that it is. And perhaps the best I can do is make the clear concept even more vivid here. So when you’re frustrated or angry or anxious, remember the following:

Your mind holds three versions of yourself: past, present, and future.

Your past self has done everything it can to make your future self happy.

You can make your present self happier by remembering how selfless your past self was.

Finally, thinking about your future self is helpful but only in small, deliberate doses. This is that strange, uniquely-human act of “planning” that we all engage in. You might call it day-dreaming but its one-and-the-same to me. And it’s quite fun when we do it right.

In conclusion, all three versions of ourselves have a fantastic part to play in our daily experience. Understanding how and why they work best is a great step towards an even better experience.

You should try it. Your future self will thank you. And your present self. And your past self.