Imagining Our Future Selves and the difference between lifespan and healthspan.
Can you imagine yourself in six years? How old will you be? How will you be doing?
Financial advisors are used to helping clients focus on the future by talking about life expectancies and how long their money will last once retired. But looking at charts and graphs and income streams doesn’t make it real. What will we—and our lives—really be like in the future?
FMRI scans have shown that we are terrible at imagining our future selves. Scans show that the area of our brain that lights up when we think about ourselves today, does not light up when we try to imagine ourselves in the future—it’s as if we are thinking about an entirely different person!
That person who will benefit from delaying Social Security, or saving for the future, or planning for long-term care, or estate planning, is perceived by our brains as someone we don’t even know. It all makes sense now. Why would you give up gratification today when you can’t imagine yourself enjoying the fruits of that deprivation in the future?
Even when you do go along with your future-oriented recommendations, you are probably taking it on faith that the strategy will pay off rather than feeling the feelings of happiness and peace of mind you are aiming for. Poor “affective forecasting” is what psychologists call the inability to experience today the emotions of our future selves. It is believed that this is a defense mechanism—an unconscious set of psychological processes—designed to spare us from some really bad fears and anxieties. The inability to feel the way our future selves might feel is therefore seen as “promoting psychological well-being.”
This may explain why so many people can dispassionately talk about “being dead” before they will recoup their delayed Social Security for example, especially when they view the choice using the outdated breakeven thinking, as an excuse to claim their benefits earlier. They’re not really feeling the feelings of themselves much older than they can imagine, but rather feelings of someone they don’t even know.
In fact, one study showed that an exception to the inability to imagine one’s future self-involved those who had had a brush with mortality. In the face of death people immediately started thinking about the future and how they could have a meaningful impact. They felt feelings about the future, and this changed the way they behaved in the present.
Maybe the best way to establish a connection between our present and future selves is to buy into the idea that we can actually create our future self today. Ideally this would not be a whole new self but an extension of our present self.
This may not be so far-fetched. After all, when we look back on where we are now and how we got here, we can usually trace it back to certain decisions we made—where we went to school, what we majored in, where we chose to live, what job(s) we took, which people we’ve associated with. Looking back, we can see now that much of our destiny was shaped by our own decisions and activities, stretched out on a continuum. Why can’t it be thus going forward?
You yourself can observe the great disparity of conditions among people in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Some are plagued by aches and pains and chronic conditions, while others are still going strong. I [Elaine*] decided I wanted to be one of those who keep on going strong. How so?
I’ve [Elaine] been reading. One book is called Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity by Peter Attia. He says longevity has two components: lifespan, which is how long you live, and healthspan, which is how well you live. The goal is to have a long healthspan, to stay healthy and functioning right up to the end. It naturally involves certain behaviors, but it’s fundamentally more about how we think [and make decisions; much like we did in the past, referring to the “trace it back” thought exercise discussed above].
The second book I [Elaine] read is called Built to Move by Kelly and Juliett Starrett. This one is filled with specific things we can do to lengthen our healthspan, easy things you wouldn’t think would have a big impact, such as standing on one foot periodically throughout the day to improve our balance and eating 800 grams of fruits and vegetables a day.
All throughout our later years we have the opportunity to create our future selves, from who we are when we get up tomorrow morning to who we will be 20 or 30 years from now. And to be clear, this will still be us.
Once you really connect with your future self and see yourself living longer, healthier, lives than you once thought—to age 100 or beyond—you’ll be more likely to implement sound financial-planning strategies like working longer, delaying Social Security, saving more, and planning for long term care (What might be that care? How do you pay for it?), and finally estate planning.
It is more than just DNA which plays into lifespan. Healthspan includes attitudes and actions … actions based on decisions you make and your attitudes about those decisions. Your brain plays a huge role since that’s where decisions and activity comes from.
Rather than retiring at 65, or any other age, and hoping for the best, people can actually see themselves living through the rest of their life, taking responsibility for the financial and health decisions that will enable them to live well right up to the end.
*Original article for an adviser newsletter by Elaine Floyd, CFP®, Director, Retirement and Life Planning, Horsesmouth, LLC, within which I’ve made edits for the broader public.