Why the Brain Discounts the Future Self and Makes Attaining Goals So Hard
And, what to do about it.
The brain is an incredible machine. Just think of what it does for you. It allows you to effortlessly communicate with your family and friends. It allows you to expertly navigate through your environment, like while running or doing yoga. It allows you to appreciate beautiful music and taste delicious foods.
But, for all the brain does for us, there’s one thing that drives us bananas — our inability to change our habits to reach our goals. And we all have goals, don’t we? Whether it’s to eat healthier, get to the gym more often, or start a writing practice, there are things that we want and our brains seem to just get in the way.
At first glance, something appears to be broken. It seems counter-intuitive that evolution would have made it so difficult for us to achieve our long-term goals. Why are we so prone to eating the proverbial doughnut when all we want to do is lose weight?
I would suggest thinking of it like this: the brain has the near-impossible task of keeping us alive without knowing anything about its environment. In its toolbox, the brain must have a tool for every situation. But — and this is the critical point — if we die, the game is lost. Thus, our brains prefer the tools that benefit us right now. All other tools are secondary.
So, of course, you want that doughnut! Our brains favor the present over the future by default. And this makes perfect sense because the future is uncertain or, in the worst case, irrelevant because we’re dead.
On the other hand, we all know that sacrifice is possible. We sacrifice for our families. We sacrifice for ourselves. We sacrifice for our communities. The question is, what makes us do it?
If we can figure that out, we’ll have cracked the secret to achieving our long-term goals.
What’s willpower got to do with it?
Most of us use willpower to try to accomplish our goals. With it, we use the rational mind to force ourselves to do what’s necessary. Unfortunately, we know from experience that this isn’t a very reliable tool.
According to psychologist and professor David DeSteno, willpower isn’t well-suited to helping us achieve our long-term goals. This is made clear by the depressing fact that only 8% of people accomplish their New Year’s resolutions! If willpower was effective, you’d expect that number to be at least a little bit higher.
It’s not that willpower is without its uses. It exists for a reason. But, as DeSteno claims in his book, Emotional Success, we are trying to use it for the wrong purposes. First, willpower takes effort to use, and it doesn’t get any easier to use over time. At some point, we are going to run out of willpower and it’s at that point that we’ll act contrary to our long-term goals. Second, we often simply choose not to use it. We are exceptional at using our logical minds to rationalize our behavior. You think, I’m going to eat that doughnut because I’ve had a stressful week! We expertly step around employing willpower in the first place. Finally, using willpower induces the stress response. Since using willpower by definition forces us to act contrary to our desires, it’s taxing and has negative long-term health implications.
If willpower isn’t the answer, what is?
Does the brain also have tools that cause us to favor the future over the present? Is there a system we can hack to make achieving our long-term goals more likely?
Using our emotions to achieve our goals
The last place we think to look to achieve our long-term goals is in our emotional toolbox. These silly, irrational things seem to get in our way much more often than they help us achieve anything.
DeSteno, however, has another perspective. Emotions, he argues, don’t exist to simply colour the past. If that was their only purpose, natural selection would have done away with them. Instead, DeSteno believes that emotions motivate us to act in particular ways in the present and that this is their true “purpose.”
With this hypothesis in mind, he set out to examine three emotions he believes are critical for achieving cooperation: gratitude, compassion, and pride. He reasons that since cooperation has been instrumental to the success of our species, it would make sense for us to have emotions that make it easier for us to cooperate.
Cooperation, by definition, requires that we put aside our immediate self-interest for a future aim. If a friend asks you to help move her couch, you need to put aside your generally selfish tendencies to do this. So, what motivates you to help?
DeSteno has shown that feeling gratitude, compassion, and pride make it easier for us to choose to cooperate.
This is how these emotions might play out:
- This friend has helped you in the past so you feel grateful, which makes you desire to help her today.
- You once needed to move a couch so you feel compassion for her situation, which makes you desire to help her today.
- She is looking to you to help her solve a problem so you feel pride in your abilities, which makes you desire to help her today.
In each of these cases, you don’t have to use willpower to put aside your immediate self-interest to help your friend. These emotions change the mental calculus going on behind the scenes. Instead of placing a greater value on the present, these emotions change those calculations so that we desire to put aside our immediate self-interest and help.
How can you use these emotions to achieve your long-term goals? The answer is simple: cultivate these emotions to make your mind more future-oriented. If you can make your mind place more value in the future, it makes it more likely for you to choose actions that will lead to your long-term goals!
How to cultivate a future-oriented mind
To cultivate a future-oriented mind, we need to cultivate emotions that cause us to stop over-valuing the present. Gratitude, compassion, and pride are exactly the emotions we’re looking for. Thankfully, it isn’t as difficult as it sounds to cultivate them. We just need to be mindful.
Keep a regular gratitude journal. In it, write down three things that you are grateful for today. The trick is to not use the same examples each time, in particular, the big things, like family and friends. In time, you will habituate to them and you won’t get the benefits. Instead, focus on the little things. Did someone let you merge into traffic? Did someone hold a door for you? Did you have a nice chat with an acquaintance you bumped into?
The key to gratitude is noticing the little things. They’re there. You just need to look for them. And, in as little as three weeks, you will have higher levels of gratitude and self-control.
Meditate regularly. Use an app like Headspace or Waking Up to get started. The trick is to not get impatient or angry with yourself. “Meditation is easy” is a phrase that no experienced meditator has ever uttered sincerely.
Even just three weeks of mindfulness meditation can make you more compassionate. Give it a try!
This is a tough one to wrap our heads around. Pride is often associated with arrogance and hubris, but it needn’t be.
Authentic pride is the feeling that your skills are useful to others. Remember: “other” can also be your future self, which means that you can and should take pride in the actions you take today that serve your future self’s interests.
But, don’t just take pride in reaching your goals. Take pride in the steps you take along the way. This will reorient your mind toward the future and make it easier to chase after your dreams!
Thanks for reading!
For more information on this topic, I’d highly recommend David DeSteno’s book, Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride.