What Is Your Mental Time Horizon?

If you google “time horizon,” you will get various articles about financial time horizon—in other words, whether are you are short-term or long-term investor.  That’s not what I mean; I’m talking about your mental time horizon—how far ahead you are thinking and planning in your life.  This kind of time horizon changes with how young or old you are, whether you are anxious or calm, whether your life is in a stable plateau or in a time of rapid change.  Outside events can change the time horizon for everyone.  For example, Covid, particularly in its early months, contracted everyone’s time horizon to a few weeks or days, because of the danger and the uncertainty of the disease, and the difficulty of planning ahead.  Right now, the war in Ukraine is having a time horizon effect world-wide.  To the extent we are all reading and thinking about it, our time horizon contracts as we picture and identify with civilians huddled in basements, counting the minutes until the next bomb drops or the next shipment of food and water arrives.  It’s a terrible crisis and we don’t know what is going to happen, even tomorrow.

How old you are affects your time horizon.  Children have a very short time horizon—hours or even minutes.  Watch them playing with a ball in the park and you see how much they live in the present moment—that’s part of what we mean by play, it is enjoyable because of its short time horizon.  In the park I see couples in their twenties pushing a baby carriage, and imagine that they are working together to map out their future—their jobs, their education, their aspirations for their children.  They have a long horizon—particularly the mother.  Indeed, it may be that time horizon differs by gender, too.  Women on the whole seem to have a longer time horizon than men, though it is difficult to generalize.

Seniors have a contracted time horizon; that’s part of the burden and worry of being older.  The bulk of your life’s years have been lived, what is done is done, and the future is an uncertain, much shorter horizon than it used to be.  Part of the joy of watching your own children and their children (your grandchildren) is that as a senior you can vicariously become involved in those longer time horizons, and through them indirectly participate in the anticipation of a life yet to be lived. Anxiety contracts your time horizon to the next few minutes, or even seconds.  That’s its rightful purpose, to get you to focus on an immediate threat or danger. As for anxiety, I read now about the tremendous rise in anxiety and depression among teenagers and young adults, as an aftereffect and hangover from the isolation of the Covid years.  It is one thing for older people to experience a shorter horizon—that is normal for them—and quite another for a young adult to be hemmed in by the uncertainty and disorientation of interrupted socializing and schooling.  I would guess that these teenagers are stuck in a truncated time horizon due to prolonged isolation and stress, and can’t find an escape from it.

In short, your time horizon is one of the main factors that define you, and that determine your mental health and stability.  I wrote recently about the importance of sometimes being quiet, and finding respite from the distractions and addictions today’s wired world offers.  But those very distractions can offer solace when your time horizon is askew.  During Covid people ate and drank too much, got stoned, lost themselves in addictive social media and binge-watching old TV series—anything to distract from the disorientation that comes from having to endure a time horizon that is foreign or out of kilter .  My advice to seek quiet as a refuge from digital noise may land flat for those who are self-medicating with noise to drown out the emptiness and loneliness that a distorted time horizon can push you up against. 

One advantage that pre-industrial cultures had is that they could take refuge in the wisdom of their ancestors and the intervention of their gods.  The presence of ancestors stretching back in time, holding the wisdom of the tribe or community, is a way of lengthening your time horizon backwards—to see yourself at the tail end of a long history that supports and carries you.  Prayer to a god, or to God, likewise opens a portal into the eternal—the ultimate time horizon.  Time is thus both our friend and our enemy.  To be alive is to be awash in the sea of time, and we all need beacons and coastlines as we float along to know where we are and where others are whom we love and care about.  Without that we are adrift, we are lost.

So my advice is: become friends with time.  Try to orient and anchor yourself in your time horizon, and stay connected to friends and valued colleagues, who may offer a possible future to steer toward.  People who are depressed lose their sense of a possible future; they  look for it, but just can’t see one.  A psychiatrist friend of mine once told me that his basic advice to depressed clients is, “There is always something you can do.”

That’s good advice for everyone—there is always something you can do.  This is mostly true, I think.  If you just start with that thought–there is something I can do, what is it, where is it?—right away your time horizon begins to right itself, the beacon on the distant shore begins to shine as you swim along, and, however haltingly, you can begin to steer.

I hope so.  In today’s world, especially, we need beacons.  Without them, we flounder.