We Are Happier When We Focus on the Future

(p. 1) What best distinguishes our species is an ability that scientists are just beginning to appreciate: We contemplate the future. Our singular foresight created civilization and sustains society. It usually lifts our spirits, but it’s also the source of most depression and anxiety, whether we’re evaluating our own lives or worrying about the nation.
. . .
A more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects. The power of prospection is what makes us wise. Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain, as psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered — rather belatedly, because for the past century most researchers have assumed that we’re prisoners of the past and the present.
. . .
(p. 6) The central role of prospection has emerged in recent studies of both conscious and unconscious mental processes, like one in Chicago that pinged nearly 500 adults during the day to record their immediate thoughts and moods. If traditional psychological theory had been correct, these people would have spent a lot of time ruminating. But they actually thought about the future three times more often than the past, and even those few thoughts about a past event typically involved consideration of its future implications.
When making plans, they reported higher levels of happiness and lower levels of stress than at other times, presumably because planning turns a chaotic mass of concerns into an organized sequence. Although they sometimes feared what might go wrong, on average there were twice as many thoughts of what they hoped would happen.
. . .
Most prospection occurs at the unconscious level as the brain sifts information to generate predictions. Our systems of vision and hearing, like those of animals, would be overwhelmed if we had to process every pixel in a scene or every sound around us. Perception is manageable because the brain generates its own scene, so that the world remains stable even though your eyes move three times a second. This frees the perceptual system to heed features it didn’t predict, which is why you’re not aware of a ticking clock unless it stops.
. . .
, , , there’s precious little evidence that people . . . spend much time outside the lab thinking about their deaths or managing their terror of mortality. It’s certainly not what psychologists found in the study tracking Chicagoans’ daily thoughts. Less than 1 percent of their thoughts involved death, and even those were typically about other people’s deaths.
Homo prospectus is too pragmatic to obsess on death for the same reason that he doesn’t dwell on the past: There’s nothing he can do about it. He became Homo sapiens by learning to see and shape his future, and he is wise enough to keep looking straight ahead.

For the full commentary, see:
MARTIN E. P. SELIGMAN and JOHN TIERNEY. “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., MAY 21, 2017): 1 & 6.
(Note: ellipses added. The word “central” in the first passage quoted from p. 6, appears in the online, but not the print, version of the article.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date MAY 19, 2017.)

The Chicago studies mentioned above, are discussed in articles in a special issue on “The Science of Prospection” in the Review of General Psychology 20, no. 1 (March 2016).

The commentary quoted above, is based on the book:
Seligman, Martin E. P., Peter Railton, Roy F. Baumeister, and Chandra Sripada. Homo Prospectus. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

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