Time | Time Perspective | Time Preference | Positive Psychology

Time: Playing with Perspectives

Time Perspective is a way for Psychologists to categorise how we function in the context of the past, present or future, where our preference is, and how that affects our behaviour.  Bear with me; this is exciting stuff that can help you understand how you, and those around you, tick!

There’s a simple test you can take – the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory survey – to find out your preferred perspective, but before you do, look at the perspective descriptions below and ponder which might be your preferred perspective.  If you’re not sure, think about what your preference is when you’re on holiday, as you might have learnt to use different perspectives to suit particular situations, such as work.

Then take the test here and see if you get the same result.  Don’t worry too much about the graph in the results for the time being.  For now, just look at the numbers.  The perspective with the highest number is your ‘Time Preference’ (TP).  For example, my TP came out as ‘Present Hedonistic’ (no surprise to most people who know me!), but I also have strong ‘Past Positive’ and ‘Future’ perspectives.

What are the different Time Perspectives?

  • Past Positive: You generally like reminiscing about the past. You may feel happier as you recall positive emotions, but might also view the past as “the good old days”, through rose-tinted glasses, potentially leading you to feel less positive about the present.
  • Past Negative: You tend to spend a lot of time remembering negative past events, which may impact negatively on your present mood and emotions and may also lead to feelings of regret.  It may, however, also help you view your present in a more positive light.
  • Present Hedonistic: You like to live in the moment, are possibly quite impulsive, and enjoy an element of thrill and danger. You may find that you’re struggling to meet deadlines because, like me, you’ve mastered the fine art of procrastination.
  • Present Fatalistic: You are likely to view your circumstances and life events as being out of your control. This may mean you find it difficult to motivate yourself to take action as you don’t feel it will impact on results.
  • Future: You are likely to spend much of your time planning for the future and making lists. You are probably quite organised and known for meeting deadlines.

The above are quite simplistic explanations, but you can read about each Perspective in more detail here.

Why does this matter?

Zimbardo proposes an ideal ‘Balanced Time Perspective’ (BTP) – see graphResearch carried out in 2008 supported the theory that people with a BTP profile are happier than others.   So, should you attempt to work against your natural TP, to fit the ideal profile for happiness?  Not necessarily.  The Zimbardo Inventory is only one tool of many you can use to improve your happiness and overall wellbeing.

Why bother, then?

Learning about your TP, and the TP of those around you, can help improve relationships at home and at work and can help teachers in school support their pupils better.  It can also help you understand yourself and your own behaviours.  I find it most useful in this context.

For example, I know that my ‘Present Hedonistic’ TP is likely a strong contributor to me being overweight.  I like good food, lots of it, and I don’t like to deprive myself of that pleasure in the present in order to achieve the desirable objective of future weight loss.  With this insight, I can choose to work on strengthening my ‘Future’ perspective, which may, in turn, contribute to my long-term weight loss.

A couple of years ago, our family went for regular country hikes, to help our youngest daughter prepare for her Duke of Edinburgh Silver Award Expedition.  I wanted to stop at every beauty spot, enjoy the view, savour the moment (‘Present Hedonistic’ TP) and take photos to remember the moment by (strong ‘Past Positive’ perspective), whereas my husband wanted to get to our destination as fast as possible (‘Future’ TP).  These differing perspectives occasionally (ok, often!) caused unhelpful tensions.   Knowing what drives our behaviours can help keep the peace in our home…emphasis on ‘can’! For this knowledge to be helpful in avoiding family rows, you need to be willing to understand and accept other people’s perspectives!

My mother and I have this on-going ‘thing’ about money.  She is fantastic at saving for the future.  I, on the other hand, seem to have the gift of burning money at a rate of knots!  She gets frustrated with me for being irresponsible; I get frustrated with her for ‘meddling’.  Now I understand that I am driven by my ‘Present Hedonistic’ TP and she is driven by her ‘Future’ TP, I can smile at our differences – most of the time.

A child with a strong ‘Past Negative’ TP may get very anxious when it comes to exams, focusing only on past negative results.  A teacher or parent can encourage the child to strengthen their ‘Future’ perspective to make revising for exams less stressful.

How do you strengthen a particular Time Perspective?

There is no ‘one size fits all’.  Play around with perspectives.  Start by writing down the specific characteristics of a particular perspective that you would like to develop, and then build activities into your life that will encourage you to use those characteristics.

For example, if you are firmly rooted in a ‘Past’ perspective and want to develop your ‘Future’ perspective, practice making short lists, plan for holidays and really focus on building the excitement; set yourself goals and milestones, starting with ones that are reasonably close in time and achievability, then build from there.

Most of all, remember this is one tool of many, and it’s not meant to take over your life.  Take the test, explore the different perspectives, and have fun discovering more about yourself and those around you.

I wrote this article as one of my MAPP (MSc in Applied Positive Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University) assignments.  Once I had submitted it, I was able to post it publicly as an actual blog post.  I hope you have found it useful and interesting to read, and that you will delve further into Time Perspectives and Preferences.  I have found these to be fascinating and incredibly useful in relationships – at work and at home.


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