I stumbled across a TED talk by behavioral economist Keith Chen, who did a study on why some countries’ citizens have a higher savings rate than others. He found a really crazy correlation between the countries who saved more and the countries who didn’t – the way the country’s language spoke about the future. My Literature nerd ears perked up.In English, we have different tenses to talk about the past, present, and future. You say, I ate yesterday, I eat today, or I will eat tomorrow. In a language like Chinese, you use the same tense when talking about the past, present, or future, so the same sentence in Chinese translates to I eat yesterday, I eat today, or I eattomorrow.Chen found that countries with “futureless” languages saved 25% more than countries with “futured” languages. You can watch the video to see all the stats that back it up, but let’s think about what this means and why this can be a game changer.
The line that really got me in the talk was this:
“You’re forced to cleave the future from the present and treat it as if it’s something viscerally different and end up disassociating the future from the present, making the future feel distant from the present.”
Because we as English speakers are continuously talking about the future as something that is going to happen instead of something that is happening, we end up removing ourselves from it. This way of thinking makes it that much harder for us to make the decision to put away money because “the future” feels like it’s always going to happen later.What if we thought of the future as happening the same time as the present? It would sounds something like this:
I save today. I save tomorrow.
Wow. Saying it this way even feels less judgmental, doesn’t it? In English, when you say you will save, you create this possibility that you might not save, which can leave you emotionally charged and anxious. When you take away the future tense, you take away all the anxiety and pressure that often comes with it.Your present self and your future self are the same person at the same time. It’s only our language that makes the future seem far away.Now go read some Vonnegut and start saving, today and tomorrow.