A psychological force influences every one of our decisions, thoughts, and actions, yet few of us are aware of it. It’s called “time perspective,” defined by Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo as “our sense of psychological time.”

Through 30 years of research, Zimbardo and his colleagues identified five time perspectives and the ways in which they change our decisions every day.

Past-positive: Positive, nostalgic thoughts about “the good old days.” If you have a past-positive perspective, you find joy in remembering and you want to capture memories so you can return to them again and again.

Past-negative: Negative thoughts and emotions about the past, such as regret, guilt, and anxiety. If you have a past-negative perspective, you probably think a lot about what actions you “could have” or “should have” taken.

Present-Fatalist: A classic “there’s no reason to plan” attitude. If you have a present-fatalist perspective, you feel that your life is fated by external forces, and there’s therefore no reason to try to control it.

Present-Hedonist: Constant seeking of pleasure and fun. If you have a present-hedonist perspective, you live life day to day–which makes you fun at a party, and might not be so great for your 401K.

Future-oriented: A trust that hard work will lead to a promising tomorrow. If you have a future-oriented perspective, you’re goal-oriented, embrace education and planning, and you thrive on predictability.

My default time-perspective is future. I exercise today because I know it will benefit my health down the road. I take online classes on the weekend to become a more productive employee. I study languages because I love them, but also because I’ll be able to use them one day.

My brother, on the other hand, has a different time orientation. He drinks a few beers tonight because it’s fun. He doesn’t worry about how it might make him feel tomorrow. He probably wouldn’t have healthcare if it weren’t mandated – after all, he’s healthy, why spend money on something that he doesn’t need? My brother is a present-hedonist.

My dad, the family photographer, reminisces about his childhood and his days in the Army with a massive grin on his face. He rarely travels without an audio recorder to document what we did, where we ate, funny jokes from the day, etc. My dad is solidly past-positive.

Zimbardo argues that our psychological orientations toward time are partly innate and partly shaped by childhood experiences, education, geography, and experiences with family and economic stability-instability.

In my opinion, Zimbardo’s most consequential insight – and why I’m so excited to discuss this on Thrive Global – is that to live a healthy, purposeful, and sustainable life, we must embrace time perspectives that don’t come naturally to us and incorporate them into our thought patterns and psyche. My call-to-action is that we make a strong, concerted effort to fold in a past-positive perspective into our daily routines. I’ll tell you why. We live in an era where instantaneous communication technologies, namely email, texting, and social media, are accelerating the pace of life; where dinner with friends actually means dinner with friends and their phones; where refreshing Instagram now has become more important than paying attention to the car in front of us on the road. This psychology is similar to that of a gambler on a slot machine. Every time we look at our phones, we are pulling the proverbial slot machine. We may not “win” on the first few pulls, but the possibility of a new text, “like”, or comment keeps us neurochemically addicted. This reinforces a present-hedonist mindset.

While social media throws us into present-hedonism, the constantly-changing conditions of our labor market create an unknown future, as evidenced by a recent report which suggests 85% of jobs in 2030 have not yet been invented. This hard-to-believe fact means that in order to stay ahead of the curve, we must constantly be evolving, acquiring new skills, and preparing for a radically different tomorrow. This forces focus on the future.

The technological revolution is creating a world in which we ignore the past. Zimbardo and Boyd, as well as other researchers, argue that this is detrimental. After all, maintaining a balanced time perspective (i.e., ~⅓ future, ⅓ present-hedonism, and ⅓ past-positive) has been found to boost levels of life satisfaction, overall happiness, self-determination, vitality, and gratitude.

So, how do you become more past-positive? Zimbardo suggests you should focus on the good in your past by creating photo albums, writing letters of gratitude to influential people in your life, or starting an oral history of your family.

Practice past-positivism. You will feel a connectedness to something much bigger that leaves you with a deep feeling of satisfaction and belonging while creating a window into the past for family to enjoy. It will do wonders for your wellbeing.  


Three point highlight:

  • The tech revolution causes us to focus on the present and future, ignoring the past

  • A balanced time perspective improves happiness, wellbeing, and a number of other positive psychological outcomes

  • Given the bias technology has for the present and future, let’s be intentional about embracing the past-positive