“Your marriage ends in divorce.” “Failure to finish school alters your life course.” “Addiction destroys you.”
If a fortune-teller told us that these events were what our future held, we would almost certainly consider an alternate path. While this scenario is a practical impossibility, we can still, with the benefit of hindsight, imagine different life alternatives through counterfactual thinking (“If only I had not married him”; “If only I had finished school”; “If only I had not started drinking”). And we can reflect on the advice we would offer our younger self (“Do not marry him”; “Go to college”; “Stay away from alcohol”). We readily ask other people their advice on every topic under the sun, from who we should date to what investments we should pursue, and so freely offer it to others. So why would we not reflect on the advice that we would give ourselves? Why would we not examine actions we would change if we could go back in time?
I and my colleague conducted two studies asking people what they would say to their younger self, whether they followed this advice and if there was a pivotal event in their life that was related to it. Across both studies, more than 400 participants had quite a bit to say to their younger self. Although the majority of the advice fell within the categories of relationships (“Don’t get married, under any circumstances”), education (“Stay in school; don’t drop college no matter how may promotions you get”) and the self (“Believe in yourself”), other popular advice categories included finances (“Put money in a savings account”), health (“Take good care of your teeth”), goals (“Choose a project and stick to it all the way through”) and addiction (“Stay away from alcohol”). Although we prompted subjects to provide advice to their younger self in our studies, it turns out that people spend quite a bit of time spontaneously thinking about doing so—about a third of the participants said they consider advice they would offer their younger self at least weekly.
In looking at the guidance people gave, some of it reflected situations or missed opportunities that the person can no longer change. For example, “Don’t have a child at 16” will not change the birth of that particular child at 16. Other advice, however, represented choices for which corrective action could still be taken. “Finish school” or “Drink less and run more” are actions a person can still do something about, pending the availability of funding and the right motivation.
Thus, we were interested in the extent to which people actually followed the advice they offered their younger self. In both studies, more than half of the respondents said that they did follow it. The others, we will assume, either couldn’t do so because it was no longer feasible or because they simply chose not to, perhaps because they did not want to give up bad habits or start beneficial ones. It’s also possible that some people didn’t follow their own advice because, no matter how good some advice is, following it remains difficult and elusive (for example, “Forget about what other people think. Take risks and do things that you enjoy doing”; “Love yourself; you are lovable”).
Does it really matter whether we follow the guidance we offer our younger self? Apparently so. People who followed such advice in both of our studies thought their younger self would view them more positively than those who did not. In fact, when asked, “What would the person you were in high school think of you now?” many non followers believed their younger self would be disappointed. If following the advice we give to who we once were can make a difference in our view of ourself, then, certainly, thinking about this advice is an exercise worth doing.
As part of detailing the guidance they would offer their younger self, participants described a positive or negative pivotal event in their life that was tied to that advice. For example, one person described his pivotal event by saying, “Sadly, I developed a drinking problem. I’m now working hard to get sober.” His advice to his younger self: “Don’t drink.” Another subject said the pivotal event was her parents getting divorced in high school: “It taught me all the wrong lessons about life. Everyone got involved in their own pain, and no one asked about me. I felt completely invisible and unwanted.... This was the first time I remember my entire idea of who I was being destroyed.” Her advice was: “Get professional help for your mental problems. It doesn’t make you weak.” These pivotal events were most likely to occur between the ages of 10 and 30, reflective of the reminiscence bump.
How helpful is it, really, to think about the advice we would give our younger self? Perhaps we should just let bygones be bygones and move on. While we would never suggest that anyone wallow in his or her past and dwell in a world filled with regret, our studies suggest that considering this exercise can be beneficial and can give perspective not only on one’s current view of the self but also on the direction one would like the future to go. Almost half of the participants in our study said that the advice they offered their earlier self influenced how they described themselves in the future, with a quarter of the respondents saying they saw their future self as successful and another 13 percent saying he or she would be happy. Thinking of the advice we would offer our younger self also provides the opportunity to reflect on our past and whether, in the midst of possible traumatic situations, we feel resentment, acceptance or perhaps even gratitude. The advice can also be a useful reminder of actions we need to engage in, going forward: “Avoid being a negative person”; “Move along from bad situations”; “Cherish your family”; “Stop allowing the opinions of others to crush your spirit.” While we may not have a fortune-teller to forewarn us of pending doom, we can reflect on our past, think of the advice we would offer to our younger self and use it as a guide for our future.