Thoughts of a past lecture on thinking about the future

Prof. Roy Baumeister. Photo Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License

May 9th was an exciting Tuesday afternoon in the University Hall. The room was filled with scholars from disciplines as varied as Psychology, Philosophy, History, and Math, all eager to learn about the whether, when, why, how, who, what, and ‘so what’ of thinking about the future. Prof. Roy Baumeister, one of the most influential psychologists, and visiting fellow for Institutions for Open Societies, was about to reveal his newest insights on this matter.

In anticipation of his talk, the first slide showed several quotes about the future that appealed to the imagination, like “My interest is in the future because I’m going to spend the rest of my life there” (Charles Kettering), or “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards” (Søren Kierkegaard). Indeed, Baumeister notes that people often reflect on the past in order to better understand life. For the same reason, researchers tend to study experiences, behaviours, and other events that lie in the past. However, Baumeister’s latest findings may radically shift this research focus on the past toward the present and future. Specifically, he showed that people in their daily lives are much more concerned with their present and future than with their past. Moreover, thoughts about the past and present are to a large extent pragmatically geared toward the future (i.e., what can I learn from my past and do in the present to create my ideal future?).

Enjoy the present

Funny fact: The past was operationalized as everything before five minutes ago, while the present starts five minutes from now. Though the present thus only lasts 10 minutes, people enjoy thinking about the present the most (which is in line with mindfulness philosophy), while thinking about the unpredictable future makes them more cautious and risk averse. So let’s not dwell on the past or worry about the future, but instead think of what we can do right now to realize our ambitions.

Report by dr. Anouk van der Weiden