Instant gratification is nothing new. Ask anyone who has ever had a hangover, and they'll tell you the short term rewards of “just one more” won over the long-term implications of a sore head the next day.
But there are ways to kick our instant gratification habits and start taking the long view.
Bina Venkataraman learned how to help communities and businesses look past short-sightedness as climate adviser to President Obama.
In her book The Optimist's Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age, she shares her strategies for making decisions that reap benefits over the long haul
The title of Venkataraman's book was partly inspired by British economist Arthur Cecil Pigou, who wrote that humans have trouble thinking about the future when we make decisions, often leading to a lot of disappointment and regret.
Ironically, one of our features that makes us distinct as a species is that we have the ability to project ourselves into the future and plan for it. So why do we still choose instant gratification?
Venkataraman tells Jesse Mulligan that because it’s not perceived with our physical senses, we have difficulty imagining the distant future.
“There's an imaginative leap it takes for us to think about the future with the same degree of visceral response that we think about what's in our present state, whether it's a doughnut that looks very good to us that we want to indulge in, or it's something that we want to get done right away, because we're going to get an immediate reward for sending that email or finishing that quarterly report.”
We can also struggle to imagine or plan for something that we haven’t experienced before, she says.
“[It can be] more difficult for us to contemplate, say something like sea-level rise, if you haven't actually seen the coastal changes, or they're difficult to perceive in your life, it's probably difficult to think about that as a potential future scenario."
But we’re not necessarily becoming worse at it, it’s just that the stakes are higher now than for previous generations, Venkataraman says.
“If you think about our ancestors, for thousands of generations, humans only lived for about 40 years on average. Well, now in much of the developed world, people are living to 80 years or longer and in the developing world to 70 on average, and we can expect to see our longevity and our lifespans expand.
“So even just from a personal point of view, we have a greater need to think farther ahead for our own lives, whether that's saving for the future, or thinking about our education, or how our lives might turn out.
“Our emissions today, we know contribute to the climate of 100 years from now or 200 years from now. So with that kind of knowledge and power to shape the future of humanity at scale, we have a greater need to think ahead, both for ourselves and for the sake of being better ancestors to future generations.”
A researcher at UCLA found that after showing college students aged avatar versions of themselves via virtual reality, they were more willing to save for their own future.
It was a way to help bridge that gap between future projection and imagination, Venkataraman says.
“I think some of these tools and technologies that we can use to better inhabit a future that we have yet to experience can help us better plan for that, because they speak to not just the sort of cognitive part of ourselves that would plan for the future, but our actual sense of feeling and emotion about the future, our visceral senses.
“One thing virtual reality can do is trick our bodies into sort of feeling the future in a way that is difficult to maybe actually take seriously when someone just says to you, ‘one day you're going to be old, and so you ought to just save for the future’.”
Venkataraman acknowledges we can’t always be perfect in our decisions, but it’s all about balancing that temperance, she says.
“If there's something really important happening in the morning, it might really help you to try to inhabit that in your imagination.
“Put yourself in that scenario in the future, and try to bring vivid, colourful details to that scenario, what do you have to do in the morning; if it's running a race, or if it's holding a really important meeting, picture everyone around the table looking at you, picture what you're going to be wearing, how you're going to feel, and use that to help you in the moment.”
Perspective hindsight is another concept that may be beneficial for those struggling with decision-making, Venkataraman says.
It suggests that instead of thinking about the future by drawing up scenarios, you should imagine a future outcome as if it's already happened and ask why and how.
“What this does is it illuminates the decision points that you have in the present or leading up to that future outcome that can actually affect that outcome.
“So what this also does for us, if you do this for both negative and positive outcomes in the future, is it allows people to overcome some of the tendency we have to assume that certain outcomes won't happen; we'll just say to ourselves that won't happen, or we'll get really anxious about something happening exactly the way we wanted to.
“Perspective hindsight is a way of sort of bringing yourself into the future and then really clarifying what are those key steps that are going to get you to where you want to be.”
When planning for climate change, optimism can be essential, she says, although not to the extent that people are satisfied with the current status quo and remain idle in the hope technology will fix the problems.
“The kind of optimism I advocate for is an engaged optimism, by which I mean recognising that we actually have choices that we face and that we can participate actively in addressing this problem.
“It requires us to look beyond the current state of planetary despair or the despair in politics around the world and to say to ourselves, what is the future we actually want to happen … [and] how do we get there?”
This kind of optimism could potentially encourage voters to consider more meaningfully the decisions they make in selecting political candidates, she says.
“But if we only talk about Doomsday and act as if we have no choice in the matter, as if it's inevitable, we'll be neglecting our obligation to actually do something to make this suffering less, to reduce the humanitarian suffering, to reduce the financial damage from climate change.
“And we'll be missing the opportunity to actually act on it because everything we do to reduce emissions matters.”
Backlash against climate change movement can perhaps be explained by the theory of the gap in imagining the future, she says.
“I think what's happening is that people are being confronted with faces of the future. As I said, it can be easy to dismiss an unfathomable future. If it seems like Doomsday and you have no agency, or if it just seems like something that's never happened, because it's unprecedented in human history, which this warming climate is.
“I think anger towards these young people is an unfortunate response. In some ways, it's explicable because it's sort of difficult to confront our own responsibility in shaping their future.”
What the climate movement should attempt to do instead is motivate people to be better ancestors, Venkataraman says.
She advises people to think of the earth's precious collective resources as an irreplaceable family heirloom.