Life – Incomprehensible Without Time

How do you understand your life? Or, more importantly, do you understand how you understand your life? It is impossible to start to make sense of until we understand the impact of time on it. It is an impact that isn’t always obvious, and that very few are consciously aware of. Here is what three different psychologists have taught me about time and life.

Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and winner of the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, says that we “confuse experience and memory” and that it is very difficult not to so. Just as a mountain looks different depending on where you look at it from, so does life. Looking down from the summit is obviously a very different experience than looking up from the foot hills, but do not apply that insight into how we live.

We have more than one perspective on life. There is the life that we live (experiencing self) and there is the life that we remember (remembering self).

“Everybody talks about happiness these days… It is impossible to think straight about happiness… We are just as messed up as anyone else is… It turns out that the word happiness is just not a useful word anymore, because we apply it to too many different things…”

Have a listen to Daniel Kahneman’s TED talk, and see if it changes how you view how you view your life experiences. – Full transcript here.

Philip Zimbardo, famous to psychology students for the Stanford prison study, has spent much his later career exploring our relationship with time,which he writes about in two books – The Time Paradox and the The Time Cure. Zimbardo says that how we view time is very dependant on the culture we operate within; that means the country, our religion and even the town we live in. Zimbardo identifies five perspectives towards time:

  1. The ‘past-negative’ type – focused on negative personal experiences that still have the power to upset, leading to bitterness and regret.
  2. The ‘past-positive’ type – a nostalgic view of the past, staying  close to family. A cautious, “better safe than sorry” approach.
  3. The ‘present-hedonistic’ type – pleasure-seeking, reluctant to postpone feeling good for the sake of greater gain later.
  4. The ‘present-fatalistic’ type – not enjoying the present, but trapped in it, unable to change the inevitability of the future.
  5. The ‘future-focused’ type – ambitious and focused on goals, big on making ‘to do’ lists, and with a nagging sense of urgency.

Sometimes the future-focused type is sub-divided into two (see Zimbardo’s RSA talk). Each of these perspectives has its own strengths and weaknesses, and Zimbardo would argue that it is healthy to move between them, although most of us tend to settle into one or two of these perspectives, and that drives many of our behaviours.

Dan Gibert (known for is research into choice and hapiness), gave this TED talk in March 2014. We (massively) over estimate our own stability. Our greatest moment of change is now.

“…time is a powerful force. It transforms our preferences. It reshapes our values.It alters our personalities. We seem to appreciate this fact, but only in retrospect. Only when we look backwards do we realize how much change happens in a decade. It’s as if, for most of us,the present is a magic time. It’s a watershed on the timeline. It’s the moment at which we finally become ourselves. Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. – full transcript

A final perspective on time, from the grand-father of positive psychology, Abraham Maslow, who is probably most famous for his proposed hierarchy of needs (and no, dear tech friends, WiFi and broadband do not belong in that pyramid). Maslow said this:

“I can feel guilty about the past, Apprehensive about the future, but only in the present can I act.The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.” Abraham Maslow.

Or, roughly as a very sharp CEO I worked for once put it: We use the past as the context for the decisions that we make right now to shape our future.  We can not change our past, we can only change how we view it. We can not change our future, other than by taking actions in the present to shape it.

You can change, and you can create change. Our greatest point of influence is not “out there” somewhere, it is right here, right now. The lasting impact of this moment rest in what you decide do with it, right now, to shape your future.

Leave a Reply