Thursday, September 12, 2013

Happiness and time orientation

Elizabeth Bernstein, writing in the Wall Street Journal, reports on a novel approach to finding happiness: cultivate favorable memories of the past, but focus on moderately enjoying the present with a moderately high orientation toward building a positive future ("A Different Therapy to Find Greater Happiness," August 26, 2013).

The method, called Time Perspective Therapy, has found its highest profile advocate in Dr. Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist and Stanford University professor emeritus. Zimbardo has developed a 56-item inventory, the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory, to help people assess their perspective on time. The inventory, available at this link, is free, quick to take, and informative.

Unsurprisingly, people locked into a negative past, who also have low present hedonism and high future fatalism, are the unhappiest.

Conversely, delayed gratification (part of a positive future orientation) observed in four and five year old children correlates with better grades in school, scoring 250 points higher on the SAT, and happier family lives.

The best news is that people can change their time perspective. Bernstein provided a brief but suggestive synopsis of some of Zimbardo's recommendations for helping people to change their time orientation:

A person can raise a past-positive score, Dr. Zimbardo says, by focusing on the good in your past: create photo albums, write letters of gratitude to people who inspired you, start an oral history of your family.

Your future orientation can get a boost by organizing your calendar or planning a family vacation, actions that get you to envision and plan for a positive future. And volunteering or becoming a mentor can help you see that your actions can have a positive impact.

And you can increase your present hedonism—selectively!—by doing something to balance your mood, such as exercise or a nature walk. Also, reward your hard work with an activity you enjoy: dinner with a friend, a massage, an afternoon playing your favorite sport.

To lower your past-negative scores you can work to silence your pessimistic inner critic by meditating or keeping an ongoing list of all the good things in your life right now. "It's thinking about what's good in your life now, rather than what was bad in your life then," says Dr. Zimbardo.

And you can reduce your future fatalistic perspective by learning a new skill or hobby that allows you to see your change, and doing it with a partner—it's less isolating and the other person can give you positive feedback.

Thinking that Christianity demands or encourages a transcendental future orientation (i.e., happiness comes after death when one is in heaven) misconstrues Christianity. Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is now, in us. The promise of future reward does not justify present suffering. Otherwise, a handful of self-sacrificing hedonists could justify treating everyone else as their slaves, using them as a means of satisfying every whim. These self-sacrificing hedonists would attempt to convince everyone else of the merits of this system by emphasizing that their present pleasures would pale in comparison to the heavenly delights that await the vast majority at death.

What is your time orientation? Can you rebalance your time orientation to lead a happier, more abundant life?

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