As children, time often feels like an endless ribbon. We awaken each morning unaware of what we are going to do beyond the simple calculus of "school" or "no school." Events seem to emerge from the ether, and when the next activity is slow to form, we make up something to do.
The noose of time usually starts to constrict as we progress from elementary to middle school culminating with the regimented schedule of high school. "Free" time becomes increasingly rare, as our obligations increase. "The future" rises in prominence as our actions start to have consequences for life after graduation.
Our perception of time is personal, something we develop based on our experiences and the culture in which we grow up. According to Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd, authors of The Time Paradox, each of us develops a time perspective that divides our experience into time frames, giving order and meaning to events. This time perspective is a combination of past, present, and future orientations which together create your "time profile." Not only do time profiles reflect how we hold reality, but these mental constructs are strong predictors of our behavior and our life circumstances.
Zimbardo and Boyd found that people who are future-oriented focus on goals and use more "if-then" reasoning. They are willing to delay gratification, think in terms of consequences, and are more likely to be successful at school and work. They tend not to be physical risks-takers, preferring to invest in their health by scheduling preventative doctor's exams and flossing. (There goes the idea of free choice when it comes to flossing.)
Present-oriented people tend to focus on the physical here-and-now versus the abstract future or past. They are often more personable and helpful in the moment, but can have difficulty making choices in their long term interest. They are more likely to gamble, use drugs, and to engage in risky physical behavior. As you might have guessed, they are less likely to floss too. The authors make a distinction between present-hedonists who live to enjoy the moment and present-fatalists who feel they have little control over what happens to them.
Past-oriented people are few and far between nowadays in the U.S. That said, the portion of our time perspective we spend reflecting on the past—and whether these memories are positive or negative—has an impact on our current sense of well-being. The evidence suggests that even if you didn't have a happy childhood, it really is never too late to create one by focusing primarily on positive memories. By so doing you will likely feel more contented in the present.
What has time perspective got to do with living the good life? The Time Paradox has identified an ideal time profile for well-being which is a particular blend of past-positive, present-hedonist, and future orientations. When you hold time in this way you feel grounded in your familial and cultural roots, experience the energy and joy of being alive in the moment, and realize your ability to shape a future based on your hopes and ambitions. If this sounds obvious, it is, until you take the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (link below) and then compare your results to this ideal. In our experience, the results offered some aha! insights and accurately described our idiosyncrasies. In his book, Zimabardo offers suggestions for practices to gradually shift your time profile which we can attest do work. We really do create our own reality, minute by minute.
Here's a very fun ten minute animated video that explains Zimbardo's theory.
This is the page where you will find the "Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (ZTPI)", the survey for your time profile, AND a graph of the ideal time perspective. Open the link to the inventory in a separate tab so that you can later compare your results with the ideal time graph.
The Time Paradox maintains that we can change our time profile by changing our behavior. Below is an abbreviated list of practices from the book. Find one behavior that you think would help you shift your time profile in a positive direction and try it out this month.
Wishing you the best of times,
Beth and Eric
[Adapted from a longer version of this essay published in 2009]
This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.
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