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Life Goals and the Perception of Time: Do It Now!
Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Wed, Oct 1st 2014
When I began adjunct teaching a few years ago, I felt a sense of history and continuity as I remembered that my father, uncle, grandma, and grandpa were all educators. But while teaching connected me to the past, it also oriented me toward the future. I was acutely aware that I was in my 40s and that if I wanted to teach as well as write, I'd better do it sooner rather than later. In other words, my goal to teach was focused on an awareness of the time I had left, not on how much time I've already spent on this earth.
Of course, none of us really knows how long we have left. But we can assume that such a time horizon shrinks as we get older. We might even find it logical to say that as time shrinks, our goals become more urgent; they might even change altogether.
In an article in Science that I like to use in my classes, author Laura Carstensen discusses an idea called "socioemotional selectivity theory," or SST for short. Carstensen suggests that our subjective sense of future time (that is, the time we think we have left) plays a key role in our goals and motivations.
Research on SST has shown that younger people focus their goals on accumulating knowledge and trying new things, while older people center their goals on finding meaning and creating positive emotions. Is this simply due to the aging process? It might seem so, but the theory suggests that age is not really the driving factor in this difference. What really matters is the perception of how much time we have left.
Because younger people often assume they have a lot of time left to live, they're more willing to invest their energies in activities that may not always be pleasant but that have a payoff - such as a better job - or the thrill of a novel, risk-taking experience. On the other hand, older people often sense that they have limited time left here on earth; therefore, they prefer to focus their energies on deepening and enhancing the relationships and interests they already have. Why waste time on an unknown when we already know which people and activities we enjoy?
Adding evidence to SST is Carstensen's research showing that when younger people were told to imagine a shorter time horizon, their goals became more like those of older people. Likewise, when older people were asked to imagine that advances in medicine could assure them a much longer life, their goals became more similar to those of younger people. So it's not really aging that changes our goals - it's our perception of the time we have left.
What do you think? Does your perception of how much longer you'll be here influence your life goals? I think the bottom line is that if something is truly important to you, now is the time to do it. Because as solid of a theory as SST might be, we really never know how much time we have left.
Carstensen, L. L. (2006). The influence of a sense of time on human development. Science, 312, 1913-1915.