Memento Mori

Your birthday 20 years from now

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In this Mementom exercise, we’re going to forget about death and dying for the moment. For many of my readers, old-age seems so far away most of the time.

The Memento Mori advice “live today as if it was your last day” may allow us to put a moments thought to possibly making better decisions right now – but it’s usually a moment away until we act again as if we’ll live forever.

That got me thinking: If I could be exposed to an aged image or video of myself 20 years from now – I’m sure it would have more impact and help me to live better.

For example, if you imagine your birthday next year, you’ll envision the scene as if you were looking out from your own eyes. But if we could put on a pair of virtual reality goggles and see yourself 20 years from now, you could probably a disconnected, older version of yourself blowing out the candles, with a few faces missing around the table that you usually celebrated your birthday with, because they would have died by then.

There’s a growing collection of scientific studies showing that emotional responses are heightened when you give people vivid examples: Donors give more to charity when they hear from a victim; pulmonologists smoke less than other doctors because they see dirty lungs all day. After watching videos of car crashes, I drive all the more carefully.

Harvard Professor Hal Hershfield, Daniel Goldstein of Microsoft Research, Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford, and several other Stanford researchers found that by simply giving people vivid images of their older selves, had a direct impact on their spending and saving preferences. Subjects exposed to aged avatars put nearly twice as much money into the retirement fund as other people who did not see an aged avatar of themselves.

So there is some evidence that by visualizing an “elderly” you, you can make better long-term financial choices. How about other areas of life?

Ethics is one area. Professor Hal also found that 18-to-26-year-olds presented with avatars of their 40-year-old selves were less likely than those who saw current-self avatars to cheat on a test. Typically, we try to prevent delinquency by scaring kids about the consequences—taking young offenders on tours of adult prisons, for example. But Professor Hershfields suggest that a “Mementom” experience might be a more fun and engaging way to get them to behave better.

What about health? Could Mementom get people to stop smoking, use sunscreen, and eat well?

Just imagine that we could see full-body images of ourselves in the future that show how diet and exercise will change us. Or an antismoking “mementom”, too; instead of showing people diseased organs or strangers with tracheotomies, we could show them what the habit will do to their own faces and bodies, which Prof. Hershfield’s findings suggest would be more powerful.

If my 20-year-old self-had met my current self, would I have exercised more, and ate better? I guess so.

So should we all hang pictures of our aged selves in our houses as a personal memento mori?

That could certainly work, as long as you keep noticing the picture and recognizing that that future person is dependent on the actions of the current you and is ultimately the same you—just occupying a slightly different body and mind.

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