Abraham Rutchick

If you could connect with the person you are going to be in 20 years, would you modify your behavior today to ensure that in the future you would be living a healthy life?

The answer appears to be yes, according to research by California State University, Northridge psychology professor Abraham Rutchick.

“It’s an interesting idea, that people act better when they are thinking of their future selves,” said Rutchick. “There have been studies that indicate that people are willing to take steps to save money when they think about themselves in the future, whether they are saving to buy a car or some other major purchase, or thinking about retirement. But no one has studied whether we can influence our current-day health decisions by thinking about ourselves in the future.

“Most people have a notion of themselves across time,” he continued. “We decided to see if people make more healthful decisions today if they felt more connected with their future selves.”

Joining Rutchick in the research project were Michael Slepian, an assistant professor at Columbia Business School, UCLA professor of marketing Hal Hershfield, CSUN graduate psychology student Monica Reyes and CSUN undergraduate psychology student Lindsay Pleskus. Their findings, “Future self-continuity is associated with improved health and increases exercise behavior,” were recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

The researchers conducted two studies. In the first, participants were asked to complete an assessment of future self-continuity — the connection between their present self and their future self — and then report their current health. They found that people who felt more connected to their future selves showed evidence of greater health.

“Although this is consistent with the idea that a greater sense of connection to one’s future self leads a person to engage in healthier behavior, the opposite causal direction cannot be ruled out,” Rutchick said. “It is plausible, for example, that feeling healthier leads a person to feel more connected to their future self.”

A second study was conducted to examine the causal impact of connection to the future self. In this study, participants were asked to write a letter to their future selves —who they envisioned themselves to be in 20 years. The researchers then measured the effect of writing that letter on subsequent health behavior, such as exercise. A control group was asked to write a letter to their future selves only three months away.

The second study revealed that those who connected with their self 20 years into the future increased their exercise behavior, at least for the days immediately following the writing exercise.

Rutchick noted that prior studies have demonstrated that when people focus on the future, they often make decisions that benefit their future self, “but no one has really examined what that meant in terms of health.”

“You can see that saving money today from your paycheck will help your bank account in the future, but it’s hard to ‘see’ the tangible future benefits of exercising or eating better today,” he said. “We live so much in the here and now. We ‘live for today.’ But when our subjects wrote a letter to their future selves in 20 years — which only took a few minutes — they were better able to envision who they could be in the future, and our study indicates it impacted how they behaved today when it came to exercise.

“Acting today for health benefits that may not be seen until far in the future may be easier to do when recognizing one’s connection to the future, specifically one’s future self,” Rutchick said.