Purpose//

How Thinking About the Future Makes Life More Meaningful

Research suggests that thinking about the future—a process known as prospection—can help us lead more generous and fulfilled lives.

hofhauser/Shutterstock
hofhauser/Shutterstock

Mindfulness is all the rage these days, and for good reason. Focusing on the moment can improve our well-beingfoster compassion, and help our relationships. What about going beyond the present moment? Yes, thinking about the future can trigger anxiety—but a growing body of research suggests that it can also make our lives more meaningful.

Humans aren’t alone in having some ability to consider the future, a process that scientists call “prospection.” After all, your dog gets excited when they see you holding a leash because they anticipate a walk is imminent; your cat may show similar excitement at the sound of a can being opened. There’s even evidence that some animals—like bonobos and ravens—can choose and save tools that they plan to use in the future.

But prospection’s unique benefits to humans extend beyond that of other animals. Not only do we fantasize about our next vacation or decide whether it would be better to take the stairs or the elevator, but our prospection can cast far into the future: We might save for our children’s education or plan for our retirement decades from now. We can make predictions about our own futures based on what we’ve learned about other people’s experiences and even from characters in books and movies. And we can consider multiple directions our futures might take.

It is this remarkable ability to simulate our possible futures that makes prospection special. Just like gold prospecting may literally make you rich, studies suggest that prospecting about your future can enrich your life in at least four ways.

1. Helps us make more prudent decisions

Perhaps one of the most fundamental and important functions of prospection is that it helps us decide how to act: Thinking about what the future likely holds helps us decide what course to take in the here-and-now. Several studies have examined how thinking about the future shapes our decision-making. 

Researchers have been particularly interested in the psychology that drives our process of deciding between receiving something now versus receiving something of greater value later. In general, people tend to choose smaller but more immediate rewards over larger rewards that they have to wait for, a phenomenon known as “delay discounting.” 

But they don’t always choose short-term rewards over long-run gains. For instance, studies have shown that present-day connection to a possible future event can counteract delay discounting. In one study from the United Kingdom, participants were told either to vividly imagine spending 35 pounds at a pub 180 days from now or to simply estimate what they thought could be purchased for 35 pounds. Participants in the former condition showed an increased willingness to wait for a larger future reward than the participants in the latter condition. In other words, visualizing a specific possible future counteracted the effects of delay discounting.

Another study showed that participants who felt closer to their future selves were more willing to wait for a larger reward than those who anticipated changing; the same was true when they were asked to make decisions on behalf of a fictional character who they knew would go through a life-changing event (like a religious conversion or returning home from war).

While interesting in its own right, this research could have important personal ramifications. If people could be made to feel a more immediate connection to their eventual retirement (and consequent drop in income), they may be more motivated to make prudent decisions.

In fact, one experiment found that manipulating how people think about the time until their retirement—in days rather than years—caused them to plan to start saving for retirement sooner, because the shift in time perspective made the participants feel more connected to their future selves. A 2014 study found that viewing realistic computer-generated images of what they may look like in the future decreased their discounting of future rewards and led them to contribute more to a hypothetical retirement account.

2. Motivates us to achieve our goals (if we do it right)

Prospection has another important application: It motivates us to achieve our goals. But the relationship here is not a simple one. Work by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen and colleagues shows that whether thinking about the future helps us actually reach our goals depends on how we think about the future.

In fact, research has found that positive thinking about our future can backfire. The more people positively fantasize about successfully reaching their goals, the less effort they actually put into realizing them. For example, in one study, the people who fantasized more about successfully losing weight actually lost less weight. Another study found that students who fantasized about their transition into a professional career were less successful in their job search and students who dreamed more about their crush were less likely to start a relationship with their crushee.

Importantly, both of these studies found the opposite effect for having positive expectations(“judging a desired future as likely”). People who expected to lose weight were more likely to actually lose weight; students who expected they would find a job were more likely to actually land one; and students who expected to enter a relationship with their crush were more likely to actually do so.

It makes sense that having positive expectations—optimism, essentially—could increase our ability to achieve our goals, but why might fantasizing about the future actually decrease the chance of achieving what we want? Because, write Oettingen and Klaus Michel Reininger, positive fantasies “lead people to mentally enjoy the desired future in the here and now, and thus curb investment and future success.”

But often our goals come from our fantasies. We want to excel at work, find Mr. or Mrs. Right, or run a marathon. How do we turn these fantasies into behaviors that can help us reach our goals? Research suggests that while optimism is important, it is also helpful to draw a contrast between our fantasies and our current reality, which allows us to see barriers that must be overcome.

For example, one study asked students to mentally contrast their positive fantasies about benefiting from a vocational training program with aspects of the program that could impede their progress. This reflection caused students who expected to do well in the program to commit themselves more, and those who expected to do poorly to commit themselves less—again pointing to the importance of optimistic expectations to success. But the mental contrasting was also key: Positive expectations did not increase commitment in participants who were not assigned to compare their present situation with their future desires.

Results from a later study suggest that the effectiveness of mental contrasting is due to “energization”—meaning that, when people have high expectations for succeeding at something, considering what might impede their goals gives them energy to try to overcome those barriers. In other words, it helps to stress yourself out a little bit.

Mental contrasting, particularly when used in conjunction with “implementation intentions”—making plans to help move past potential barriers—has been shown to help people reach their goals. To describe this process, Oettingen and colleagues use the acronym WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. In studies, WOOP-type interventions have helped people break a bad snacking habitget more exercise, and improve academic performance.

Thus, research suggests that thinking about the future can motivate us to take the steps necessary to reach our goals—but only if we take obstacles into account.

3. Improves psychological well-being

Besides helping us make decisions and reach our goals, there is evidence that prospection may improve psychological health more generally. It might even help people who are struggling with depression and those recovering from trauma.

Indeed, some researchers pose a link between poor prospection and certain psychological disorders such as depression.

“We see faulty prospection as a core underlying process that drives depression,” write psychologists Martin Seligman and Anne Marie Roepke in the book Homo Prospectus. In particular, they note that people with depression imagine possible futures that are more negative than people without depression. Moreover, people with depression tend to overestimate risk and to have more pessimistic beliefs about the future.

That might be why research suggests that targeting negative beliefs about the future can be helpful. Some techniques used in cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, involve correcting how people think about the future, and some studies have shown that cognitive behavioral therapy can improveprospection. There is a 10-week program called “Future Directed Therapy” that induces participants to spend less time dwelling on the past or on current struggles. Instead, they are asked to spend more time thinking about what they want from the future, while developing skills to reach those future goals. A nonrandomized pilot studyfound that patients with major depressive disorder who completed this intervention showed significant improvements in depression, anxiety, and quality of life compared to patients who completed standard cognitive behavioral therapy.

For people recovering from trauma, a 2018 study suggests that writing optimistically about the future—an intervention called prospective writing—might encourage post-traumatic growth (that is, positive psychological growth following a traumatic life event). In this study, adults who had recently experienced trauma were randomly assigned to a prospective writing intervention group, a factual writing control group, or a no-writing control. Throughout the study, those in the prospective writing group showed greater improvement in surveys measuring aspects of post-traumatic growth, including relationship quality, meaning in life, life satisfaction, gratitude, and religiosity-spirituality. The other two groups did not show the same progress.

There’s another technique that may help anyone improve their psychological health: “anticipatory savoring.” Taking time to simulate and enjoy a positive experience in advance—whether it be an upcoming meal, visit with friends, or vacation—can allow you to derive benefits for the experience twice. One 2018 study found that taking the opportunity to savor an upcoming experience actually heightened people’s enjoyment both during the unfolding of the experience and when remembering it later. 

One way to engage in anticipatory savoring, suggested by Roepke and Seligman in a recent review article, is to modify the “three good things” gratitude exercise. Instead of writing three good things that happened today, you can write three good things you anticipate happening tomorrow and what you can do to make it more likely that those things actually happen. For people who are struggling, they suggest also writing down three methods that could be used to mitigate disappointment if the good things do not actually happen. These could include coping strategies (exercise, reaching out to a friend, etc.) or alternative strategies to making the good thing happen (e.g., if a friend cancelled lunch, you could suggest lunch next week). 

4. Makes us more kind and generous

How we think about the future doesn’t just influence our own lives. It can also influence how we treat other people.

In particular, picturing yourself helping someone in the future may make you more likely to actually do so. For instance, a 2018 study found that participants reported being more willing to help other people who needed help (such as a person who was locked out of their house or who lost their dog) if they had previously been asked to imagine helping a person in a similar scenario. People who were asked to imagine the helping scenario more vividly—by picturing the event occurring in a familiar location—were even more willing to help. One experiment even found that people who imagined helping actually gave more money to people in need when given the opportunity.

Another study found that when people think more broadly about the future consequences that could come from helping others, they might feel inspired to behave in more prosocial ways. In one experiment, researchers asked people who had volunteered for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts to imagine the meaning and consequences of their trip—or to think concretely about how they would be helping. Those who imagined the consequences of helping predicted that they would have a more rewarding trip than those who thought concretely about their actions. A second experiment replicated this finding: People predicted that giving money to someone they had never met would be more rewarding when they were asked to think about the more abstract meaning and consequences of their actions (e.g., how this decision fit in with their life’s past and future experience) than when they were asked to consider a more concrete perspective.

Could this abstract-versus-concrete effect have real-world consequences? The researchers think so:

We believe that our results suggest an intervention that could be used to prompt and sustain prosocial behavior. To the extent that people avoid or cease prosocial actions because of concrete costs, inviting people to construe those actions abstractly could help them persist at prosocial actions that have enduring personal and social benefits.

While there’s a lot left for researchers to discover about prospection, you don’t need to wait for their published studies. You can try your own experiments right now, to see if prospection helps you to live a more generous, happier, and more meaningful life.

Originally Published on Greater Good Magazine.

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