Personal Legacy Essays

Climate, Energy, Sustainability

What Will You Leave Behind? How Personal Legacy Affects Pro-environmental Behavior

Credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões.

It is widely recognized that if we want to avoid the most disastrous impacts of climate change in the future, significant mitigation activities must be undertaken in the very near future. Yet we as humans often have a difficult time making decisions about future events, in part because of how distant the future feels from our vantage point in the present. In psychological terms, this is called temporal distance, and it’s no doubt part of the reason why Americans rank climate change as a low priority on the national to-do list (it also helps explain why we’d much rather spend money now rather than put it toward future retirement). However, new research that examines how individuals want to be remembered finds that there are ways to use people’s motivation to leave a positive legacy to counteract the challenge of temporal discounting, and to encourage pro-environmental behaviors to mitigate climate change.

Researchers at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at the Earth Institute published new results this week in the journal Psychological Science in a paper titled, “How will I be remembered? Conserving the environment for legacy’s sake.” The authors, Lisa Zaval, Ezra Markowitz, and Elke Weber, hypothesize that helping people think about their personal legacy can be a powerful mechanism to overcome barriers associated with temporal distance in the context of environmental conservation (including climate change mitigation). “We were interested in finding a way to turn what is often viewed as a barrier to conservation—long time-horizons and temporal distance—into a facilitator of positive, proactive action, and we thought that leveraging legacy motives might be a great approach,” says Markowitz, now an assistant professor of environmental decision-making at University of Massachusetts Amherst. In two experiments, legacy is treated as a motivating factor that can be tapped into to promote pro-environmental behavior.

Results from the pilot study showing mean climate change believe, behavioral intention, and amount donated to charity as a function of legacy motives. Shaded bands represent 95% confidence intervals.

The researchers conducted two studies – a pilot study and a full experiment. The pilot study had 245 diverse participants from around the United States. It assessed individual difference in legacy motives, beliefs about climate change, and willingness to take pro-environmental action by donating up to ten dollars to Trees for the Future, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization.  Results from the pilot study showed that people who were highly motivated by their personal legacy showed greater pro-environmental attitudes and were more likely to believe in taking pro-environmental actions compared to those who weren’t as motivated by legacy. Participants with higher legacy motivations also donated a larger amount of their ten dollars to the environmental nonprofit versus those that had lower legacy motives.

The follow-up experiment had 312 diverse participants from across the United States and tested whether priming (or making salient) a person’s legacy motives positively influenced their environmental engagement. This testing was completed by assigning participants to one of two conditions: a Legacy condition, in which participants wrote a short essay describing what they would want to be remembered for by future generations, or a Control condition in which participants did not write an essay. The participants then answered two sets of questions regarding their beliefs about climate change and willingness to take pro-environmental action. Following the questions, participants were given the opportunity to donate a portion of their ten dollars to an environmental organization, as in the pilot study.

Results from the full experiment show that participants who wrote the essay about their legacy reported both higher legacy motives and greater belief in climate change than those who did not write the essay. The researchers also found that those who were primed about legacy were more likely to engage in behaviors to mitigate climate change.  Finally, participants who thought about their legacy donated more of their earnings to an environmental organization than those who did not think about legacy.

The results of this research show that the temporal distance associated with climate change does not have to be a barrier to engagement on the issue. In fact it indicates just the opposite: the long time horizon for addressing climate change can be leveraged rather than viewed as an obstacle. By making people aware of their desire to leave behind a positive legacy, behavior may shift towards actions that are beneficial to future generations and someone’s image of his or herself.  “Legacy motives may represent an important and currently underutilized pathway to promoting pro-environmental action. Simple prompts may effectively promote conservation by framing environmental decisions as “win-win” for both present and future generations,” says Zaval, a post-doctoral research scientist at CRED.

Lead author Lisa Zaval is a post-doctoral research scientist at CRED. Her co-authors were Ezra M. Markowitz, Assistant Professor of Environmental Decision-Making, Department of Environmental Conservation, University of Massachusetts Amherst and former Earth Institute Fellow, and Elke U. Weber, a co-director of CRED, Jerome A. Chazen Professor of International Business at Columbia Business School and professor of psychology and Earth Institute professor at Columbia University.

Funding for this research was provided under the cooperative agreement NSF SES-0951516 from the National Science Foundation awarded to the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. Funding was also provided by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies Communicating Uncertainty research community at Princeton University.


Center for Research on Environmental DecisionsClimateclimate changeCommunicating ClimateDecision ScienceEnvironmentsocial scienceSustainability

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Our time on earth is limited. We all know this, yet for some reason, we generally push it to one side. We get caught in the trap of believing there are infinite tomorrows when it simply isn’t the case.

We are here for a short time, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t leave a big legacy. And by big, I don’t mean famous or visible, but a legacy that makes a difference in some way.

So what do you want your legacy to be? Have you ever pondered this question or something similar? What do you want your life to be remembered by? We are full of possibility if we allow ourselves to believe it.

Wayne Dyer, a pioneer in the self-help field and great spiritual teacher passed away suddenly over the weekend. He was 75. I was shocked when I read the post on Facebook from his family that said he was no longer with us. He was a bright light in the world, and you could say his legacy was love. Love for ourselves, love for one another and love for this life. He taught us that through connecting and living with our hearts, we can create heaven on earth. It’s up to us.

I sit here, in my 33-year-old body, in good health, and the tomorrows feel like they stretch as far as I can see. But hearing that a great soul has moved on, and instantaneously knowing his legacy was one of love, brought me back to the point of what do I want to achieve in this life I’ve been given? When you look back at the end of your life, if you are given the chance, and assess what you have done with the moments, the days, the weeks and the years, will you be proud of yourself? Or will you have regrets? What would you have been frustrated that you didn’t do? Or what would you have been incredibly proud of trying?

For me, they are big questions that help to cut through the daily chaos of life and provide a sense of clarity. It’s like shining a light through the busyness so that you can recognize what is really important.



Here are some of my thoughts about my legacy:

If I get to the end of my life and realize that I played it safe because I was too afraid to fail, I would be mad at myself. The only way we know if life has a chance of moving in a certain direction is if we are daring enough to take the risk. I know I won’t regret taking risks.

I will hope that at the end of my days my children feel like they got a good mum. One that was available, caring, listened to them, supported them to dream big, and comforted them when it all felt a little too hard.

I hope that when I look back, I can be proud of myself for being a good wife. It’s the relationships that matter the most in life. They are the things that breathe life into our world. I hope that my husband will feel I did a damn good job at being a wife. I know that will require commitment, dedication, patience, and love to achieve.

I hope I leave a legacy, much like Dr. Wayne Dyers. I hope those who knew me will associate my name with a sense of deep, collective love. I hope they will think about their souls and the connection I encouraged them to have with their true-selves. I hope that when those who knew me hear my name after I am gone, they will feel a sense of warmth in their hearts.


I encourage you to think about your legacy. Write some notes about what you want your life to be for and about, and start becoming conscious and intentional about how you spend your days. It is never too late to start becoming more of the person you’d hope to become.

Do you want to be a wonderful mother? An inspiring teacher? A dedicated business person or an accomplished entrepreneur? A great volunteer, or a lovely friend and supportive confidant to those who knew you? Grab a journal and write some personal notes about these questions. They’re big questions. Don’t overthink them, just let your heart write.

Here are some questions to prompt your thinking:

  • What would you like your legacy to be?
  • What would you like to achieve during your lifetime?
  • What would you regret if you didn’t do it? Or try it?
  • What would you be proud you had done, attempted or achieved?
  • If you were thinking about yourself late in life, looking back on your life what are the things that matter the most?


Knowing what you’d like your legacy to be will provide you with a strong sense of whether you’re currently living in alignment with your true-self. If you feel like there are gaps between where you are and where you would like to be, don’t worry. We all are aiming to get closer to our authenticity in my opinion. Recognize you are further along than you think if the idea of a personal legacy is even worth reading about for you. And remember, that each action and conscious decision you make is one step closer to a future you will look back and be proud of.

Hi. I’m Kate Snowise. I’m a Life Coach who helps people get clear on what they want, need and crave, and then helps them take the steps to move towards that. I believe life is about more than surviving and being good enough. Each of us truly has the ability to thrive and live a beautiful, aligned life where we remember and connect with our authentic selves. I have an MSc in Psychology (the positive kind that concentrates on what is right with you). To read more about my signature coaching program The Thriving Life Project  here. 

Click here to download the free mini-guide 8 Tips Towards a Thriving Life.


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