Anticipating the end (sometimes) enhances the now

According to some, this Friday is not just the Winter Solstice, but also the end of the world: The Mayan calendar ends that day (or more precisely, the last day of the 13th b’ak’tun, but we know and love it as December 21st), and supposedly these ancients knew something about the end of this week that our legion of scientists and philosophers haven’t caught on to yet.  The most puzzling aspect of this entire belief, of course, is why would anyone want to believe a doomsday scenario?

There is one potential benefit to believing that things might be coming to an end: It can make us more appreciative of the now. When we know time is limited, we tend to appreciate what we have. This is not just a matter of those with a fatal diagnosis who approach their remaining time with new vigor; it also applies to more common life experiences, like college. College seniors were asked to reflect on their college experiences – friends, the campus, activities, and their overall experience – five times over the course of two weeks, about a month before graduation. The key is that some students were reminded that “you only have a short amount of time….about 1,200 hours left before graduation”, while others were told that “you have a significant amount of time…about 1/10th of year left before graduation”. Although both groups reported being equally happy before they began writing the essays, those who were reminded that graduation was coming up soon reported being more happy after the two weeks (about 1/2 a point on a 7-point scale, or 7% happier, on average), and were more likely to participate in campus activities. They seemed to take the idea of carpe diem to heart, and were happier because of it.

In theory, this might also mean that anticipating the end the world might make you take advantage of the time you have left, seize the moment, and be happier as a result. Of course, there’s a lot of nuance that scientific averages just don’t capture. There may have been some students who weren’t happier, or were event less happy, because of personality differences – I know many students who become stressed out about the sense of impending change, and I’m sure there are many people who find the potential end of the world more depressing than motivating.

This study also doesn’t mean we can trick ourselves into enjoying the present by creating artificial endings; no matter how often I contemplate the supposed Mayan prediction of cataclysm on December 21st, I just can’t take it seriously, and I have no special urges to go and enjoy life while I have the chance.

On the other hand, anticipating legitimate endings to phases in life – college, your child’s toddler years, a long vacation – might just be an inspiration to be mindful and enjoy the moment, or at least find activities to do now instead of later.

ResearchBlogging.org
Kurtz, J. L. (2008). Looking to the future to appreciate the past: The benefits of perceived temporal scarcity. Psychological Science, 19, 1238-1241

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