Years ago, when I was in junior high, I started keeping a journal. Although I thought I was documenting my incredibly rich inner emotional life, in hindsight, most of what I wrote seems kind of…trivial. (I focused a lot on who would go with me to various dances and whether I would ultimately make the varsity tennis team once I got to high school). And yet, silly as these issues seem now, I can still vividly recall how much I enjoyed the process of documenting things. I didn’t know it then, but I suspect that those positive feelings partly came from a sense that I was communicating with my older self; I remember that I would occasionally start my entries with “Dear me,” knowing on some level that I would eventually re-read some of what I wrote.
But what, if anything, is the benefit of having these sorts of conversations between our younger and older selves? Recent research suggests that there are two intriguing ways in which such letter-writing exercises may boost our well-being.
First, writing a letter to – or even from – your future self can help us feel better about our lives by turning the dial down on stressful events. Consider a clever research study led by Yuta Chishima. In the early, acutely stressful days of COVID (think: mid-April, 2020), he and his collaborators recruited hundreds of research participants and divided them into three groups. One group was asked to write a letter to their future selves in one year’s time, one group was asked to write a letter from their future selves in one year’s time, and a final, control group was simply asked to write about their current, daily life.
Compared to people in the control group, the people who wrote the future self letters experienced an immediate drop in negative emotions as well as a bump in positive ones. And that was the case regardless of whether people wrote a letter to or from their future selves. But why might writing letters help in this way? Psychologists point to a process known as “temporal distancing.”
Here’s the gist: when we face stressful events in our lives, it can be helpful to try to put things into context. What temporal distancing allows us to do is to step outside of the present moment and see how whatever is happening right now – whatever is stressing us out – will probably not be permanent. People who wrote letters to or from their future selves, for instance, were likely to focus on how their negative feelings about COVID would most likely not last forever. As the researchers put it, stepping outside of the present allowed people to see the bigger picture, recognizing that “this too shall pass.”
The other positive associated with this sort of letter writing is that it creates an opportunity to revisit our past lives. We’re not that great, however, at recognizing just how pleasurable this process of re-discovery might be. In a research project led by Ting Zhang, for instance, college students were asked at the beginning of the summer to document some relatively mundane aspects of their lives: things like a list of the last social event they attended, a recent conversation, an inside joke, a recent photo, and so on. They then predicted how much enjoyment, surprise, and curiosity they’d feel upon returning to this “time capsule” at the end of the summer. Across the board, students underestimated how interesting and meaningful the process of rediscovery would be.
Note that we’re quite good at anticipating how interesting it will be to revisit extraordinary experiences (say, what you did for Valentine’s Day last year). Our predictions fall short, however, when it comes to life’s ordinary experiences. The problem here is that we mistakenly believe we’ll be able to remember everyday events. Almost by definition, mundane events are the ones that are forgotten, but they’re also the ones that make up the lion’s share of our experiences: most of our time is spent doing the ordinary rather than the extraordinary. And, being able to revisit those everyday experiences can allow us to relive the moments and experiences that make us who we are. As Zhang and her colleagues eloquently put it, “By recording ordinary moments today, one can make the present “a present” for the future.”
So, here are two practical suggestions we can take from these research findings: When writing letters to (or from) your future self, take the opportunity to step outside of the here and now and try to recognize that whatever is happening in the moment is, well, happening in the moment. But don’t just write letters to or from your future self, but make the effort to revisit them at a later point in time. That way, you can fully reap the benefits of communicating between your past, present, and future selves.
To learn more about your future self and the power of making tomorrow better, today, consider reading Professor Hal’s new book ‘Your Future Self’. You can find it at: