Philip Zimbardo

Time Perspective and Our Lives

Read the italian version of the articol (HERE)


Some of our decisions are influenced by the immediate situation we find ourselves in, by our feelings, or by what others do or say they are doing. In other cases, we ignore the immediate context, focusing on the past, on the memory of similar situations. On other occasions we consider the consequences of our current actions, and what we could risk, gain or lose. These are the three main temporal perspectives which, through completely different routes, silently guide our actions. Time Perspective Therapy (TPT) helps us to understand how we look at the past, present and future and which of our time perspectives holds us back from living the life we ​​want and deserve to live. 


  1. Past positive-oriented people focus on the “good old days.” They love to celebrate traditional holidays, like to keep souvenirs and photos, and it is not uncommon for their friends to be the same since school. 
  2. Past negative-oriented people focus on what went wrong. They live in a world of regrets and recriminations and they have a decidedly pessimistic view of life. Nonetheless, many prefer to think of themselves as realists, believing their way of seeing is the “true” reality.  
  3. Present hedonistic-oriented people live in the moment, seeking pleasure and novelty. These individuals usually act in this way to avoid pain and may have addictive personalities. 
  4. Present fatalistic-oriented individuals think that their life is predetermined. Since the future is already written, they have little or no control over what happens. It is a time perspective that in some cases originates in religion, while in others it derives from a realistic assessment of one’s conditions of extreme material hardship. 
  5. Future-oriented individuals always think ahead, plan and trust their own decisions. In the most extreme cases they can become workaholics unable to enjoy what they have achieved. Their positive side is that in most cases they reach their goals and don’t get in trouble. 
  6. Finally, transcendental future-oriented people believe that life after death is more important than what they are experiencing. The consequence is neglecting the present life as dependent on that in the afterlife.  


The goal of Time Perspective Therapy is twofold: to ensure that people learn to identify the toxicity in their lives (so as to get rid of it) and to help them balance the time perspectives. We talk about imbalance every time a negative perspective predominates, be it past negative (constantly thinking about unpleasant things that happened), fatalistic present (feeling trapped in a life you think sucks), extreme-present hedonism (constantly pleasure seeking at the expense of the future) or extreme future-oriented (thinking about what should be done, to the point of missing good things happening now). 

Most of the people you meet every day–the busy office supervisor who doesn’t acknowledge what you’ve done, the disgruntled customer standing in line at the supermarket checkout, the homeless person on the sidewalk asking for some coins, the teenager who knows it all–may have unbalanced time perspectives and not be aware of it. It would suffice to put into practice the simple techniques outlined in Time Perspective Therapy to rebalance everything and gain stability. The therapy’s most concrete effects consist in an increased ability to handle difficult situations and a greater understanding of oneself and others, as well as an improved ability to enjoy life to the full. But more specifically, how do you intervene in an unbalanced time perspective? 

Negative past. People with negative past time perspective most likely experienced one or more traumatizing events. Since the trauma is deeply rooted within the psyche, balancing such a perspective means focusing on the positive past, so as to superimpose new memories on old ones and create the basis for a brighter future time perspective. 

Fatalistic present. People who believe they have no control over their own lives are also likely to have negative life experiences behind them. In this case, balancing can be achieved by giving oneself “permission,” so individuals progressively learn to indulge in a whole series of activities that provide pleasure. In other words, it’s about staying centered on the present, but this time in a hedonistic way. 

Extreme future. People who are so committed to planning and working towards achieving goals that they think they don’t have time to enjoy the here and now, can balance their time perspective by gradually learning to have fun, spending time with family, with friends, and getting hobbies. 


When our time perspectives are balanced, we can make peace with the past. We can reconnect with others by enjoying our time with them. And we can envision a more positive future that even extends beyond our lifetime. Through our work on time perspective, Rick Sword, Rose Sword and I have been able to help many veterans with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and, more generally, hundreds of people with depression, stress and anxiety, reducing their suffering not only in the short term but also in the long term. 

Philip Zimbardo
(Published in Psicologia contemporanea, 260, March-April 2017) 

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