The idea that you can change your life in a moment is so alluring that an entire industry has been built upon the notion. Whether it’s through self-help books, celebrity ~wellness~ gurus, or a trendy new workout class, there’s no shortage of avenues to self-improvement. By changing up your routine or the way you look at the world, you can, in theory, alter the course of your life for the better. But new research suggests that the eternal quest for self-improvement may have some downsides, and staying relatively true to yourself might not be so bad after all. A recent study found that life satisfaction was linked to imagining your future self to be in line with your current life, compared with people who thought they'd grow up to be different.
The study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, used data from almost 5,000 participants over the course of 10 years to investigate how someone's perception of their future might impact their life satisfaction a decade later. The participants filled out an initial survey indicating their life satisfaction and how they anticipated their personality and life might change in a decade, as well as a follow-up survey in the following 10 years. After accounting for how satisfied people were with their lives originally, and factors like age and income, both people who expected to be better off in the future and people who imagined their lives would be worse had lower life satisfaction scores 10 years later. People who saw themselves staying roughly the same tended to be the most satisfied with their lives 10 years after they were first asked.
“When people think about themselves over time, the people who perceive there to be the most similarity between who they are now and who they will be in the future end up being more satisfied with their lives in 10 years time,” study co-author Hal Hershfield told Time.
Of course, striving for self-improvement isn’t necessarily a bad thing — many studies have supported the idea that how you see your future self may shape your development. But the new study shows that maintaining realistic plans and goals for yourself may be more crucial to your long-term well-being.
“My guess is that people who want to be better and also recognize what stands in the way of doing that are the people who would take action to get to a better place in life,” Hershfield told Time. “It’s not bad to think positively about the future, so long as we think about what stands in the way and how we can overcome it.”
The researchers theorized in the study that when people felt more similar to their future selves, they may be more inclined to “delay present gratification and make plans for the long run.” These choices could then lead to higher life satisfaction in the future. Following that train of thought, past studies have suggested that fantasizing about the future too much—without putting in the effort to actually change it—may also be linked to negative mental health outcomes in the long-term.
While the desire to improve oneself is generally admirable, this study shows there's no one definitive way to lead your life. Chances are, if you set realistic goals for yourself and are taking genuine action, rather than only coasting on fantasies about the future, you'll probably end up okay.