Future Consequences and Lasting Relationships, Part 1

At times when I meet people who seem to have everything going their way, who appear to have life figured out, who are wise beyond their years, I think there must have been a day at school when the teacher talked about how to be an adult and passed out an instruction manual.  Back then we had a handout for every topic–mimeographed on those old machines that gave each piece of paper that smell that was terrible yet addictive.  And, unfortunately, I was absent that day. In elementary and high school when I was sick, the teacher would usually send work home with a friend of mine and certainly she would have sent the instruction manual home.  Could there be a more important handout? But maybe she was busy that day and forgot, or perhaps it was one of the days C.N. had spent acting out just to rile her up and she was determined to get home and have a drink as quickly as possible.  C.N. used to do things like this:  When we were working on prepositions and he had to use the word “aboard” in a sentence he wrote “A board fell off the roof and hit him in the head.”  And he would sometimes eat gum off the bottom of the desks.

In the time since elementary school I think I have discovered what Chapter 1 in the Life Instruction Manual would be. It is perfectly epitomized in the following very ordinary, daily example: Recently, I had dinner at a restaurant in Columbia called Murry’s (one of my favorite places).  I had a salad.  I wasn’t very active over the winter and I gained a few pounds.  So I was proud of myself for ordering salad.  But less proud when I then ordered raspberry-chocolate cake with white chocolate frosting.  So much for healthy eating.

Every day, in ways large and small, we face dilemmas of this sort—ones with one set of immediate consequences that are relatively positive (mmm…chocolate cake) and another set that are more distant, and more negative (hello obesity and heart disease).  Choosing what to eat is one of the countless number of decisions we make in which we face one set of positive immediate consequences and a separate set of negative distant consequences. Decisions to smoke and engage in unsafe sexual behavior are two others.

Another arena where we face the dilemma between choosing immediate or distant consequences is financial decisions.  Americans have, until recently, had a negative savings rate, meaning we spend more than we earn.  Hmmm……I can buy that 50” flat panel LED TV and have all the guys over to watch Monday Night Football or I can deposit money in my savings account and continue to watch the perfectly acceptable television I have at home.  An average household credit card debt of $13,000 is evidence of how this dilemma is usually resolved.

There are two aspects that turn these decisions into real dilemmas.  First, we can’t always be planning for the future; sometimes we have to enjoy the moment. This might involve spending some money, taking a bit of a chance, or having a little fun.  It was the movie Dead Poet’s Society that brought the term “carpe diem” (seize the day) into popular use.  And authors/songwriters/poets throughout time have written of the importance of acting in the moment.  One of my favorites is the 1967 song Let’s Live for Today by The Grass Roots.  One lyric sums up their perspective: Let others plan their future, I’m busy loving you. [The second aspect I will talk about next week.]

So which kind of person are you?  Do you live for the moment or plan for the future?  Do you act impulsively or consider future consequences? For some people the answer is “It depends.” Some people save money for retirement but eat like there is no tomorrow.

It may sound like I am implying that one approach is better than the other.  I’m not.  Each of us needs to decide for ourselves how we live our lives.  I am only advocating being aware and conscious of our personal style.  And I believe that understanding how we resolve the everyday dilemma between immediate and distant consequences is part of living the kind of examined life that Socrates described.

Next week I will describe a way to help you measure your decision style, and also spend some time relating this idea to lasting relationships.  I mean, after all, the site is called HelpingRelationshipsLast.com for a reason.

In case you are interested…..

Strathman, A., Gleicher, F., Boninger,  D.  S., & Edwards, C. S. (1994).  The consideration of future consequences: Weighing immediate and distant outcomes of behavior.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 742-752.


About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of HelpingRelationshipsLast.com and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit alanstrathman.com.