We are all time travelers: We draw on past memories, experience the present and look forward to future rewards. But how easily we travel back and forth makes a crucial difference to how well we do in life and how happy we are while we’re living it.

Our time perspective — whether we tend to get stuck in the past, live only for the moment, or are enslaved by our ambitions for the future — can predict everything from educational and career success to general health and happiness.

Stanford University psychology professor emeritus Philip Zimbardo coined the idea of time perspective. After more than ten years’ research, he concluded that our attitude toward time is just as defining as key personality traits such as optimism or sociability. He believes that time perspective influences many of our judgements, decisions, and actions. Zimbardo recommended that a more future-based time perspective could help students study and progress to higher education.

Most researchers believe our time perspective is largely learned in childhood. Culture also has an influence on our time perspective. Individualistic, “me-focused” societies tend to be future-focused, while more “we-focused” societies — ones that encourage social engagement — invest more in the past. Affluence also has an effect: Poorer communities tend to live more in the present. But we can all change our time perspective, Zimbardo says.

Ideally, we can learn to shift our attention easily between the past, present and future, and consciously adapt our mindset to any given situation. Learning to switch time perspectives allows us to fully take part in everything we do, whether it’s a relaxed evening enjoying a glass of wine or reminiscing about long-ago events with an old friend.

Vital though this skill is, since time perspective is largely an unconscious and habitual way of viewing things, it takes a concerted effort to improve our use of it.

What’s Your Type?

Zimbardo identified five key approaches to time perspective. These are:

  1. The ‘past-negative’ type. You focus on negative personal experiences that still have the power to upset you. This can lead to feelings of bitterness and regret.
  2. The ‘past-positive’ type. You take a nostalgic view of the past, and stay in very close contact with your family. You tend to have happy relationships, but the downside is a cautious, “better safe than sorry” approach which may hold you back.
  3. The ‘present-hedonistic’ type. You are dominated by pleasure-seeking impulses, and are reluctant to postpone feeling good for the sake of greater gain later. You are popular but tend to have a less healthy lifestyle and take more risks.
  4. The ‘present-fatalistic’ type. You aren’t enjoying the present but feel trapped in it, unable to change the inevitability of the future. This sense of powerlessness can lead to anxiety, depression and risk-taking.
  5. The ‘future-focused’ type. You are highly ambitious, focused on goals, and big on making ‘to do’ lists. You tend to feel a nagging sense of urgency that can create stress for yourself and those around you. Your investment in the future can come at the cost of close relationships and recreation time.

All five types come into play in our lives at some point, but there probably will be one or two directions in which you are more focused. Identify these and you can start developing a more flexible, healthier approach.

Using Time Perspective Effectively

The aim is to find a perspective which realizes our essential psychological needs and deeply held values. Balance and positivity comes from making positive use of the past, finding healthy ways to relish the present, and routinely making plans for improvement.

Take your regrets, for example, and consider how they could work for you. Perhaps you could go back to college after all? Use the painful emotions to fuel your motivation. Immerse yourself in rewarding activities that demand your full attention rather than passive activities such as watching TV. This leads to greater fulfilment and is more likely to create lasting happy memories.

Believe you can improve the future through your own constructive actions and you will gain a sense of empowerment and control, as well as minimizing those nagging doubts and the uncertainty of what lies ahead. By believing we will have a positive future, we actually increase our likelihood of doing so.

Reference and other resources

Zimbardo P. and Boyd J. Putting Time in Perspective: A Valid, Reliable Individual-Difference Metric. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 77, 1999, pp. 1271-88.

Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s professional website

Time perspective and health