Time Perspective Therapy

Say the words "therapy session" and many people will picture an hour spent on a couch dredging up unhappy childhood memories. A different approach suggests that redirecting the focus onto the present and future can make people happier, healthier and lead to better relationships.

The method, called Time Perspective Therapy, involves figuring out which of six different outlooks a person has:

  1. past-positive (you love the past);
  2. past-negative (you have regrets and bad things happened in your past-or things that you now exaggerate as bad);
  3. present hedonism (you enjoy the present and like to reward yourself);
  4. present fatalism (you feel that events are beyond your control, so why bother?);
  5. goal-oriented future (you plan ahead and weigh the costs and benefits of any decision);
  6. Transcendental future (you live a good life because you believe the reward is a heaven after death).

The best profile to have, says Philip Zimbardo, psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University, is a blend of a high level of past-positive, a moderately high level of future orientation and a moderate level of selected present hedonism. In other words, you like your past, work for the future-but not so hard that you become a workaholic-and choose when to seek pleasure in the present. Dr. Zimbardo, an influential thinker in this field who lectures widely, administers a 56-item questionnaire to determine a patient's profile.

The worst time-perspective profile to have is a high level of past-negative coupled with a high level of present fatalism. "These people are living in a negative past and think nothing they do can change it," says Dr. Zimbardo, co-author of the book "The Time Cure." They also score low on present hedonism and have a low future orientation. People who are clinically depressed or have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder typically have this profile.

Our individual time perspective is influenced by many things, including family and friends, culture, religion, education and life events. As very young children, we were all pretty much purely hedonistic-focused on getting what we wanted when we wanted it. Some, but not all, of us become more future-oriented as we get older.

The good news is that people can change their time perspective.  Raise a past-positive score by focusing on the good in your past: create photo albums, write letters of gratitude to people who inspired you, start an oral history of your family.

Your future orientation can get a boost by organizing your calendar or planning a family vacation, actions that get you to envision and plan for a positive future. And volunteering or becoming a mentor can help you see that your actions can have a positive impact. And you can increase your present hedonism-selectively!-by doing something to balance your mood, such as exercise or a nature walk. Also, reward your hard work with an activity you enjoy: dinner with a friend, a massage, an afternoon playing your favorite sport.

To lower your past-negative scores you can work to silence your pessimistic inner critic by meditating or keeping an ongoing list of all the good things in your life right now. Think about what's good in your life now, rather than what was bad in your life in the past.

And you can reduce your future fatalistic perspective by learning a new skill or hobby that allows you to see your change, and doing it with a partner-it's less isolating and the other person can give you positive feedback.

By making some small changes in your perspective, you can help yourself now and in the future!