Time perspectives and wellbeing

time perspective

The psychology of time perspectives

Have you ever thought about the psychology of time? Some of us think a lot about future, constantly planning and wondering ‘what if’. Often, we worry about what will happen tomorrow or next week. Others are more focused on the past, replaying and ruminating on the same event over and over. We are always hearing it is good to be ‘in the present’. But what does the study of the psychology of time tell us about all this?

Past, present and future time perspectives

One approach to this question is to think about the emotional tone of thinking we associate with the past, present and future. This time perspective approach12 developed by Zimbardo and colleagues argues that we have particular ways in which we view each of these phases. Specifically, we can have time perspective around the past which is positive or negative and consider the present from a hedonistic or fatalistic perspective. Finally, we can think more or less about the future. The overall style of thinking we adopt can affect our physical and mental health significantly.

Thinking about the past

When thinking about the past, we can be positive and nostalgic, focusing on good events whilst de-emphasising and ignoring negative ones. Looking at the past through such ‘rose-tinted glasses’ is beneficial to us – people who do it appear to adopt better coping strategies (i.e ones which are adaptive to health and the future) both emotionally and also behaviourally 1. Of course, I suspect going too far in this direction is not ideal, as a soley ‘past positive’ time perspective may mean we don’t learn as much as we could from the harder periods in life. In contrast, those with a past negative perspective view the past in a (you’ve guessed it!) negative way. This is linked with social conflict, lower social support, and poorer relationships following stress. So, in general, try and look fondly on the past!

Being in the present

When we think of the present, we can have have greater or lesser tendency to have a hedonistic time perspective. People high in this tend to engage in pleasure related activities and generally be sensation seeking. This can lead them to have professional problems, more accidents, be prone to addiction and generally pay the costs for living too much for positive experiences. Hedonists also tend to coping by avoiding acknowledging problems, and try and reframe rather than solve problems2. A second dimension of the way we think about the future is from a fatalistic time perspective. People who have a fatalistic approach see the present as screwed (or, in technical terms ‘catastrophic’), and see no hope of change in the future. This is, as one may imagine, linked to stress, aggression, depression and anxiety. Clearly, this is something to try and avoid!

Thinking about the future

As we have noted, we can also think more or less about the future. The research here is a bit more ambiguous. People said to be high in future time perspectives tend to spend more time planning. This can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, planning can be linked to adaptive coping – making sure we plan to look after ourselves (for instance, by getting enough sleep) or preparing adequately 3. It can also help us visualise better futures to help cope with a difficult present 4. In contrast, it can also lead to worry, a self-generated pressure to use every moment efficiently 2 and over-impulsiveness. Again, these negative outcomes are linked to both psychological and physiological stress responses.

Putting it together- time perspective profiles

Zimbardo and colleagues argue that different combinations of these various perspectives can be adaptive or maladaptive. If you are slightly high on positive past, present hedonistic and future time perspectives, – well done! This ‘balanced time perspective’ is linked to all sorts of good things including happiness, life satisfaction, gratitude and vitality 5. In contrast, if you take a strongly past negative and present fatalistic view, combined with lower scores on the other dimensions, your ‘negative time perspective’ may be linked to poor psychological outcomes (basically, the opposite of the balanced perspective).

Are these perspectives fixed?

What can we do about all this? My suspicion is that, like most things we may be tempted to think about as ‘traits’, time perspectives are more like well ingrained habits. Research agrees that time perspectives are malleable to change given time and consistent effort (or may be changed against our will if we experience major life events). As negative time perspectives are self-reinforcing, positive change is unlikely to be easy; but it is also possible. Indeed, some early work suggests this can be done in a structured way through ‘time perspective therapy’ 6. This has been applied to people suffering from PTSD with good results, and further research is ongoing. However, understanding these constructs ourselves is also helpful – if we can see how we assess time, we can also try and consciously shift styles. Over time, this may well help us experience better psychological health and lowered stress responses.

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  1. Holman EA, Zimbardo PG. The social language of time: the time perspective-social network connection. Basic and Applied Social Psychology. 2009;31(2):136–147 
  2. Zimbardo PG, Boyd JN. Putting time in perspective: a valid, reliable individual-differences metric. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1999;77(6):1271–1288. 
  3. Chua, L. W., Milfont, T. L., & Jose, P. E. (2015). Coping skills help explain how future-oriented adolescents accrue greater well-being over time. Journal of youth and adolescence, 44(11), 2028-2041. 
  4. Bolotova AK, Hachaturova MR. The role of time perspective in coping behavior. Psychology in Russia, State of the Art. 2013;6(3) 
  5. Zhang, J. W., Howell, R. T., & Stolarski, M. (2013). Comparing three methods to measure a balanced time perspective: The relationship between a balanced time perspective and subjective well-being. Journal of Happiness studies, 14(1), 169-184. 
  6. Zimbardo PG, Sword RM, Sword RKM. The time cure: overcoming ptsd with the new psychology of time perspective therapy. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2012. 

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