The Scientific Reason Not to Worry Too Much About the Future

A little while back I started realizing that I spent a lot more time thinking about either the past or the future than living in the moment. I realized it when I was enjoying a great weekend with a good friend, but found myself unable to properly enjoy my time with my friend because I was thinking about how the weekend was almost over and I was consoling myself by trying to mentally plan out my next trip to visit this friend. At one point I realized that we had been in the car together for nearly an hour and had hardly spoken because I was too busy thinking about when we could get together again.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets caught frequently with their mind somewhere else, often in some imaginary version of the future. It’s pretty easy to argue why we shouldn’t spend too much time in the past: we can’t do anything about it. But we can do something about the future, so what’s the harm in spending too much time there?

You’ve probably heard the saying, “The past is history, tomorrow’s a mystery.” Well, a couple of years ago, I did a little bit of studying to figure out why it is that tomorrow is a mystery.

Imagine for a moment a glass of water. Now imagine that I drop a single drop of food coloring (of your favorite color, of course) into the glass. Can you see how the color starts in a tiny, confined space, and slowly spreads out until it fills the glass?

Now here’s a question: can you imagine trying to predict exactly in which directions the color would spread and when? You’ve got about as much chance as a fish does of climbing a tree. But that’s exactly what we do when we try to plan our futures!

The second law of thermodynamics (no, I’m not a scientist, so pardon my lay explanation, but this is really cool) states that time is the measurement of the increase of entropy in a given system. In other words, the passage of time is literally just the increase of chaos. So in that glass of water, every second increases the possible movement of each of those particles of color. And in our lives, every minute—or hour, or day, or year—we think into the future introduces more variables that make our imagined version of the future less and less likely.

So what does this mean? YOLO? The heck with planning and long-term decisions? Umm…no. We still make choices based on tomorrow, because when that “today” comes, we want to be grateful for the choices we made in this “today.” And sometimes tomorrow’s reward requires the sacrifice of today’s pleasure. But it does mean that we shouldn’t procrastinate happiness.

We already knew that, but in case you needed a reminder, now you have scientific proof.

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