Time Perspectives and Mental Health

Humans are time travellers where thanks to our memory we are able to draw on past experiences to process our present, as well as look forwards to the future. Our capacity to do this with ease is said to determine how happy we are, and how well we will succeed in life, at least according to Stanford University psychology professor emeritus Philip Zimbardo.

In his theory of Time Perspectives Zimbardo concluded that our attitude towards time defines a person just as much as their key personality traits, for example, optimism or sociability. Our time perspective, for example whether we dwell on the past, live hedonistically in the now, or are trapped by visions of the future, all predict success, from health, to career, to education, as well as judgements, decisions, and actions.

Using this theory, most researchers believe that our time perspectives are learned and moulded during early childhood, where cultural, social, and religious factors have an effect. Individualistic cultures produce future-focused individuals, whereas collectivist cultures produce past focused individuals. Additionally poorer communities produce now focused individuals. Luckily time perspective can be changed to produce healthier individuals, according to this theory. So what are the time perspective types? Zimbardo identified 5, as follows:

Past Negative

A generally negative view of the past. This type of person will focus on negative personal experiences that still have the power to upset them, which may lead to feelings of bitterness or regret. For example a person might say:

“I think about the bad things that have happened to me in the past”

"I often think of what I should have done differently in my life"

“I think about the good things that I have missed out on in my life”


Past Positive

A warm, sentimental view of the past, where a person experiences nostalgic memories and stays close to family and friends. The upside is happy relationships based on past experiences, however the downside may be a “better safe than sorry” cautious approach to life. For example a person might say:

"It gives me pleasure to think about the past"

"I get nostalgic about my childhood"

"I enjoy stories about how things used to be in the good old times"

"I like family rituals and traditions that are regularly repeated"


Present Hedonistic

A risk-taking, hedonistic approach towards time and life. This person will forgo future gain for instant reward. Driven by pleasure-seeking impulses they may be popular but tend to have a less healthy lifestyle and take more risks. For example:

"Taking risks keeps my life from becoming boring"

"I do things impulsively"

"I often follow my heart more than my head"


Present Fatalistic

A hopeless, helpless attitude towards life and the future. This person feels trapped in the present and unable to change the inevitability of their future. They may feel powerless, causing anxiety, depression, and risk-taking. For example:

"My life path is controlled by forces I cannot influence"

"You can't really plan for the future because things change so much"



Showing concern regarding the consequences of their actions as they work towards achieving future goals and rewards. This person will delay gratification and avoid time-wasting in order to achieve goals. The upside is that they will be focused, however, this may create a feeling of nagging urgency and stress for those around. For example:

"I am able to resist temptation when I know that there is work to be done"

"It upsets me to be late for appointments"

"I complete projects on time by making steady progress"


According to this theory of how we perceive time the aim is to become flexible and adapt our thinking so that we are not just rooted in one mode, which may become problematic. All five methods may become prominent at one point or another, and identifying these points and adapting with a flexible approach is important. Using this theory further the aim is to find a healthy balance and positivity, using our past positively, finding healthy methods to relish the present, and routinely making plans for the future and further improvement.

One such method of changing our perspectives is to ask fairly simple yet significant questions regarding our views, and the forthcoming answers may determine new ways of thinking which are more positive and beneficial. A few examples include:


Is this perspective an old tape on replay?

Old tapes equate to old thoughts which may no longer be in line with what a person has achieved, or how they view themselves. The thoughts , therefore, may not fit with the present and will not be worth replaying other than to take lessons from them.

Does this perspective help or hinder me from an abundance mindset full of happiness and peace?

A vital question geared at getting to the root of whether an issue serves us or not.

What does holding this perspective cost me?

Clinging to old negative mindsets and perspectives continue to cause harm and may affect the present by limiting experiences and opportunities, poisoning your life. It may be best to reprocess and let things go.

What can I learn from this?

Possibly one of the biggest questions and most useful in reframing our experiences more positively to help us grow as people.

What am I grateful for in this moment?

This question is aimed at moving us from a mentality of scarcity to a mentality of abundance, an empowering state that helps us see the present and may help us see things positively whereas previously we did not.

In the end, your life is your story and how you remember it is up to you! It may take work but according to Time Perspective theory it will be well worth it!

We hope you enjoyed this educational article on Time Perception theory, please read our other articles for more information on time at Boutique Von Burg.