How Your Future Self Can Make You Healthier Right Now

4 min read

March 29, 2024 – Getting a glimpse of what you’ll look like in a few decades can spur you to better health, no time machine necessary.

The more you connect with your future self – for instance, by looking at computer-generated images of an older you – the more likely you are to be active, smoke and drink less, and generally be healthier, researchers have found.

Maybe you’ve seen those AI-generated pictures of, say, Ryan Gosling at age 70. (Not bad, Ken!) Do the same with your own pic – there are apps for that – and your health may benefit. It’s literally an in-your-face look at your prospects, something you otherwise may have trouble visualizing.

“We sometimes lack the ability to empathize with, or connect on an emotional level to, these people that we will one day become,” said Hal Hershfield, PhD, a professor of marketing and behavioral decision making at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), he and his colleagues found that when we think about ourselves 10 years in the future, our brains respond as if we’re thinking about strangers; the anterior cingulate cortex lights up. 

“Our future selves look like other people,” Hershfield said. 

The concept he studies is “future self-continuity” – how connected you are to your future self. Most people don’t feel particularly close to that future person. In one study, when asked to imagine their birthday in the distant future, people tended to talk about themselves in the third person instead of saying “I” or “my.” 

Other research showed that undergrads tend to treat their older selves as they do other people. They volunteer their future selves and their classmates for more work or for disgusting experiments, but they’re less willing to do that to their present selves. 

The Benefits of Looking Ahead

Everyone is different, but research suggests that the more you connect with your future self, the smarter your behaviors may become. 

“If I feel a sense of connection, an emotional connection, or an overlap with my future self, it's easier for me to justify doing things today that will benefit them in the future,” Hershfield said. 

People who feel close to their older selves are more likely to: 

  • Be better at saving money. They accumulate more assets and put away more for the future, according to a study in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
  • Make healthier dietary choices. A 2023 study found that people who felt particularly close to their older selves ate fewer sweets and fatty foods and more vegetables and fruits, compared to those who didnt feel such a link. They were “more autonomously motivated” to eat healthfully each day, said Richard Lopez, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Massachusetts, and the study’s lead author. 
  • Smoke fewer cigarettes, according to a recent study out of Austria
  • Rate their overall health better. Hershfield’s research showed that people who felt greater future self-continuity had less chronic pain and less trouble climbing stairs. 

In particular, this connection seems to help people who feel dissatisfied with their bodies. Experiments by Mark Serper, PhD, a professor of psychology at Hofstra University on Long Island, NY, published online in 2023, showed that people who were low in body satisfaction but high in future self-continuity engaged in more healthy behaviors, such as eating a balanced diet or attending medical appointments, compared to those low on both.

This concept isn’t the same as delayed gratification or simply thinking often about the future, Serper said. Some people may fantasize about coming years, or worry about climate change or their jobs, but that doesn’t mean they are emotionally close to who they will become. It's a separate construct,” he said. 

How to Connect With Your Future Self

Serper’s research found three key things that affect how connected we feel to our older selves: (1) Similarity. Will this future self have similar values and goals? (2) Positivity. Do we think we will like the older version of ourselves? (3) Clarity. “How vividly can you imagine your future self? Picture that in your mind,” Serper said. 

You can increase your sense of your future you, he said. “It's not a fixed thing.” Here are two techniques supported by research.

Write letters to yourself in a distant year, and then have that other you respond. When Hershfield’s team randomly assigned volunteers to write letters to themselves in either 3 months or in 20 years, those who corresponded with their distant selves were 43% more likely to exercise over the coming days. In total, they clocked an extra 25 minutes of exercise per week, on average. 

Look at digitally aged pictures of yourself. Try FaceApp or Oldify. A 2022 study found that after people in a Dutch probation system interacted with their age-progressed avatars in virtual reality, they drank less alcohol over the next week. 

In a 2023 Korean study, young people who checked on FaceApp how they may look as senior citizens were more likely to choose a healthier food option: whole-wheat bread over a doughnut, for example. “I think having a visual cue could be important to make it stick,” Lopez said. 

How long do these kinds of mind tricks last? “We don't actually know the answer to that. My guess is that these are short-lasting effects,” Hershfield said. 

He suggests trying such exercises repeatedly. Even if the benefits wear off quickly, you could set yourself on a path to better health behaviors. 

“It could be the type of thing that could get someone to take initial action, sign up for the gym or an exercise class,” Hershfield said. “It could be a start.”