How do you manage your time? Most of us manage our day-to-day lives by hours and minutes of the day, functioning around times of appointments, when we need to wake up or leave for work or school. Time is important, but often it is not something we think about deeply, not only for how we function, but also for our psychological sense of time. Our time perspective is related to whether we are focused on the past, present, or future when making decisions and determining day-to-day experiences.
Dr. Philip Zimbardo is a renowned psychologist, famously known for his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment where his team studied human reactions and behaviors in a prison environment. There are even movies and documentaries on Netflix. Based on his research, Dr. Zimbardo came up with several theories of human behavior and proposed that Time Perspective “is a pervasive and powerful yet largely unrecognized influence on much human behavior.”
Dr. Zimbardo proposed that there are five main time perspectives: future, past-negative, past-positive, present-hedonistic, and present-fatalistic. One time perspective is not better than another, and being focused on one time without considering the others in life decisions and experiences can be detrimental to functional decisions as well as to mental health. In times of despair or when feeling overwhelmed, it is beneficial for us to consider what time perspective we are leaning toward.
Zimbardo defined the five main perspectives:
Past-positive focuses on positive experiences in past life, “the good old days.” It is good to have positive memories, and people in this time perspective tend to have better self-esteem. However, individuals who focus only on this time can cling to old, sometimes dysfunctional, patterns in life.
Past-negative focuses on everything that went wrong in life, traumas, and resentments from past relationships. Individuals with a past-negative focus could experience more depression and thoughts that nothing in their lives will change.
In the present-hedonistic perspective, individuals make decisions to avoid pain and discomfort; they seek pleasure and make decisions without thinking of future consequences. Children are primarily present-hedonistic, but this approach can be problematic in adults. These individuals can potentially struggle with addictions, be impulsive, and have thrill-seeking or risky behaviors.
Present-fatalistic assumes a hopeless and helpless position. Individuals with this focus do not make decisions; they believe they have no control, and nothing they do can change their situation. They believe “outside forces” (e.g. spiritual or governmental) have all the control that determines their lives.
Future-oriented individuals are focused on planning and making decisions based on future results and avoiding negative consequences. Because they are driven by goals, they could potentially function better and be successful. Thinking about future consequences also helps curb impulsive actions. However, they can experience more anxiety and fears of potential negatives. Often, they don’t take time to be present, to enjoy the moment, or to occasionally self-indulge or take time for hobbies.
The emphasis on only one time perspective can bring dysfunction or emotional distress. Zimbardo later developed the “Balanced Time Perspective” in which considering different parts of all three times, past, present, and future, could promote functional, mental, and emotional health.
Time Perspective Therapy helps individuals create awareness and a balance between the perspectives of present, past, and future that would promote better decision making and mental health. In general terms, a balanced life would mean thinking about what has been good in our lives, avoiding decisions that have brought bad results, planning for leisure and pleasurable activities, but also working hard to pursue future goals. In moments of distress, bringing a well-balanced way (of all perspectives) of looking at the situation and making decisions around it helps mental health.
Dr. Jessica Gibbe Fernandez is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Alabama. She is a Certified Sex Therapist, a Clinical Fellow of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and an Approved Supervisor for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Jessica’s clinical interests include marriage and couples therapy, healthy relationships, and family therapy. She sees adolescents and adults with depression, anxiety, stress, self-esteem and personal growth issues, life transitions, gender issues (LGBTQ+), sexuality issues, family adjustment and acculturation.