This is a story about the whens, the thens, and the nows. Although everyone has a little bit of when, then, and now in them (just like how Mini Me suggested in Austin Powers that everyone should try having a little mini in them) I would speculate that specific individuals might err stronger in one type than another. For simplicity’s sake, let’s place each type into one body. Let’s call our future oriented folk the “whens,” our past-focused-people the “thens” and our presently living patriots the “nows.”


How do we measure our characters? I am creating these hypothetical groups based on activity in the reward system (hypothalamus?). When I say present versus future versus past oriented, I am thinking about preferences, and measuring the activity in the reward system when either engaging in something in the present, thinking about engaging in it, or remembering engaging in it. I hypothesize that someone who would classify him or herself as more future/goal oriented or a “planner” might have the greatest activity in their reward center when thinking about something in the future as opposed to remembering doing it or actually doing it in the present.

Let’s call this measure of reward or happiness “woo” points, which is currency I made up in a previous entry. Again, it’s probably not about comparing and finding averages of woo points between individuals, but about looking at the difference between levels within the individual. Person A and Person B might be in completely different galaxies with regard to the scale of their woo points, but have comparable proportions and consequently have similar preferences.

Let’s use our characters to talk about time perception and valuation. How do we think about time? In different ways, I suspect, depending on your reward system and ability to make decisions. How much do we perceive to be in control of our time, and how valid is this belief? I think we all have different units in which we think about time. For me, life exists in daily cycles, and I must milk each day for all that it’s worth. When I run today I have no care for how hard my running today will affect my tomorrow. Perhaps I can change that to 24 hour cycles, because when I goto sleep I do count 6 or 7 fingers to see when my body is going to open its eyes, and what time that is relative to the start of class, when something opens, or when the sun rises. When I have had a completely awful day or am overly hard on myself, I am comforted by the fact that life almost resets when I goto sleep and wake up the next morning. I get another chance when darkness fades, to feel better or do right what seemed so wrong, and its usually the case that I wake up and my big wrong of the previous day seems sort of silly, or that I gave it much more attention than it deserved. But at this point, the wrong is in the past, and I like to think about the future. Let’s talk about our “whens.”

The Whens

The whens indulge in thinking about what might be, and create goals and plans to lead up to those moments. Whens use the past as an experience of lessons, and correlate actions with consequences in an effort to learn to prevent or exacerbate those outcomes. Action and dreaming are done, of course, in the ephemeral present, combined with distraction when a break is needed. How might we apply some scale to the future? There is the near future and the far future, and whens live in both. The present can be a double edged sword because a when might be doing something to increase or work towards far future options, but making choices on a daily basis prunes near future options.

Our whens really like these options, and for things to be open and free. Possibly narrowing down options or taking out choices of things that “might be” could be distressing, and lead to indecisiveness in the present. Deciding upon X or Y is really hard, because if we choose X then we can’t indulge in thinking about the possibility of Y anymore. Matter of fact, in making decisions we decrease overall woo points, and are at a loss. Why? Because being able to dream about both X AND Y might have been more neurochemically rewarding than just X. But this isn’t to say that whens don’t know how to make choices about the future. When those choices are made, the focus simply zooms in, and becomes about the smaller pieces. If we are future oriented, narrowing down future choices might diminish present reward, and that is countered by breaking our decision into component or additional parts to think about. As long as some indulgence is there, the whens have their mental blankie, and it’s all good. But sometimes the dreamed goal could be coming on too fast, and in this case, time becomes an enemy.

Time could be a hard thing for our whens. If you live in a future dream and are convinced that you must be X,Y,and Z within this constrained time to get to the moment you glamorize, you will certainly stress and worry and feel out of control of your time. Whens might set rigid ways in using their time that they deem to best become what they dream to be, and sacrifice present happiness for that future time, justify present discomfort or unhappiness with that future moment. This is when maladaptive beliefs are formed, and maintained, and they are largely unconscious. I think that these beliefs can be applied to any domain, and largely, have the same structure. A when might think something like “In order to achieve (this future outcome) I must (do this and sacrifice this) in the present” In strictly adhering to the “do this” part, our whens never try anything differently, and never learn that they might be able to accomplish the same things without sacrificing as much present happiness. On a larger scale, our whens never think about the idea that the future moment of fulfillment may never be realized, because it will always be just that, in the future. Even broader, in getting so consumed with this goal, the whens never introspect and figure out what really fulfills them, makes them happy, as human beings.

But putting a fork in this steam powered cycle would require one of two things. Either making the choice to marginally ease up on the rigid beliefs and see that the craved future is still there, yet present life is remarkably improved, or having something big and obvious happen that is like a red flag for our whens to stop, and look up. Hopefully, our whens learn that most of life, and wellbeing, is a choice, and that it is possible to maintain a beautiful future moment without sacrificing the present.

The when as€¦

CONSUMER Let’s think about buying something. Whens buying patterns might be based on a future outlook. Other than the obvious “need” created by marketing/advertising, I think that a lot of purchasing is done based on the unconscious mindset that something available to me right now may not be available at some future point, or not conveniently available. For example, running shorts disguised as skirts are gaining popularity right now, and I’m a huge fan of feeling feminine while being able to escape at any moment. I was excited to think about buying a second black skort, because I reasoned that I wore it so frequently and loved it so much that having another one as backup, for security, made sense. However, before I made the purchase, the thought occurred to me that I didn’t need to prepare for the destruction of my current skirt. It just hadn’t occurred to me that when it happened, the likelihood of being able to get a very similar one, in that present moment, was very high, and that I didn’t currently need the second one. I didn’t buy the skirt. Interesting.

**ROMANTIC **In terms of relationships, if you’ve watched recent TED talks by Helen Fisher you might have noticed the relation to love as an addiction. For the whens, the addiction might be in thinking about the person, in thinking about a beautiful future with the face that we mentally crave. For these future oriented thinkers, when you remove the possibility in the present, that doesn’t eliminate the craving and need for those future moments. This is what leads to one type of heartbreak. But it also leads to a solid base for a long term relationship if the love is mutual. Another double edged sword, or maybe a rose bush metaphor fits better here.

CHRISTMAS!! With regards to any planned event, like a holiday, for example, I would say that the whens get a lot more reward about thinking about the experience of the event as opposed to actually experiencing it. At least that is pretty consistent for me, but this might just be a result of overly magnificent expectations as I indulge in this future moment, and then disappointment when it turns out, as it usually does. But it’s hard to set expectations lower than what you’ve already experienced, so even when you don’t indulge in thinking about the future, it’s a lot harder to be surprised as we adapt to life.

**Overall: **So I didn’t talk about our nows and thens, mostly because I find myself in an environment and culture of whens. I think that the structure of society serves to sort our “whens,” “thens,” and “nows.” if you are a when, you are very good at planning and preparing and acting with regard to the future, so you might do better in school. Thus, is it possible that the top universities are biased towards people that, overall, get more reward in thinking about the future? Could we run a test to determine if “quality” of the school in terms of how hard it is to get in somehow correlates with being future oriented? Then we can take a look at, Duke’s population for example, and break it down even further. Are the kids that enjoy partying, study and do work at the last minute, more present oriented? Are the kids that preoccupy themselves and even sacrifice present happiness for some future goal or moment more future oriented? Do we just throw everyone else that doesn’t plan or party compulsively into the “then” category?

Why did I ask this question? My thinking about time began with a bathroom stall in Sanford. Not in intending to use it, but in (questionably) accidentally finding it. I entered the building after a long run with an itch to re-explore its intricate and confusing architecture of stairs, people pockets, and inappropriately placed swiveling chairs. It seems that after all these years it hasn’t been high on the priority list to replace the print-out bathroom door labels with anything other than an 8.5€³ X 11,” (but at least they got an e-print!) so when I saw the one labeled “Women” on the second floor I figured I might ward off future discomfort by going now, since it was convenient.

Closure is an elusive concept, and it is found in unexpected moments and ways. There are people and events in my life from which I still consciously hunger for closure, and ones that I don’t consciously think about, and then find it anyway. The second I stepped into this second floor bathroom the memory of a day in early February of 2007 flooded my memory. It was here that came after Pub Pol 55D with a pretty strange stomach ache that ultimately was catalyst for a surgery. This moment preceded huge physical and emotional pain, but I hadn’t known that, in that particular section of time. And it was amazing how quickly my mind placed me in that moment of discomfort, confusion, and uncertainty, and how, knowing what I presently knew, it was almost tragic to see my ignorant self about to cross into challenging times. Yet there was no thinking, analysis, or introspection beyond the memory of that feeling. Like the flick of a switch I conquered that moment. And in conquering that moment, I had conquered the entire experience. i had found closure, a feeling of peace and forgiveness towards the experience, almost like I looked the hairy beast from my past in the eyes, and did not avert my gaze. The moment was both powerful and humbling, and now the experience is best represented by the scar that it left. I am forever, visibly marked, but no longer vulnerable to the pain of the experience.

The way in which my brain rewinded to that moment, started my thinking about time. I realized that my mind also has the ability to fast forward to a future moment that I predict will be wonderful, in comparison to what precedes it. Standing on the line at races, or right before an exam, I can mentally fast forward to the time after the race, after the exam, and before I know it, I am there. With regards to a long run, I don’t think about the distance or “what is left,” but instead see myself at the next interesting marker along the way, and then I’m there. But you have to be careful not to fast forward the entirety of life. It’s like a story that I heard as a child of a boy that was given a magical string – tugging the string accelerated time€¦ so when it was spring he wanted it to be fall, when it was fall he again wanted spring, so before long he pulled his entire life away.

I am a “when” that struggles with the insight of a “now.” I don’t talk a lot about how I perceive life and death, and the uncertainty of it all, mostly because I don’t think telling someone about experience is enough to change their life outlook beyond a knowledge perspective. I can tell you that it made me question and challenge my every behavior and thinking, and figure out how to deal with the grinding between my more neurologically wired “when-ness” and forced epiphany of “now-ness.”

It seems to me that for everyone, everyday, regardless of what you believe or are told is the case, life is largely uncertain. Whether your life expectancy is eight or eighty years, both are on par, and you can’t use that expectation to dictate the now. But I love to indulge in my planning, my goals, and making things happen. The best way I’ve dealt with the conflict is to actively pursue balance. There is a certain tipping point when sacrificing present happiness for something in the future makes that future moment not worth it. (And no, I haven’t read that book, and I’m not sure how the author uses that phrase, although a friend is hopefully going to let me borrow it ) I’ve adjusted that point away from this glamorized future moment, because what we do have, to find beauty and fulfillment in, is the present moment, and the larger insight is that for most people that live for the future, well, can you actually get there, and if you do, will you feel how you expected? What keeps me balanced is taking the specificity and expectation out of where “I am going,” and just trusting that it’s going to be good. It allows for learning how to observe and be like those rare “nowers”, who do seem to know quite a lot.