One Hundred and Fifty million years ago, volcanic eruption conceived over 330 tropical Islands in the heart of the South Pacific.
Tropical forests, rich culture, thriving reefs & white sand beaches forged the island nation now known as Fiji. In the west, a small heart shaped isle was hailed as one of the richest fishing grounds and an octopus outpost for the Highest of Chiefs.
This heart shaped paradise is Tavarua. In Fiji. While I've ha the pleasure to Fiji, I never made it out to Tavarua. Today, I still aspire to visit this heart shaped paradise.
Focusing on the moment can improve our well-being, as well as foster compassion, and help our relationships but did you know that a growing body of research suggests that focusing beyond the present moment can also make our lives more meaningful?
In psychology, prospection is the generation and evaluation of mental representations of possible futures. The term therefore captures a wide array of future-oriented psychological phenomena, including the prediction of future emotion (affective forecasting), the imagination of future scenarios (episodic foresight), and planning.
Prospection is central to various aspects of human cognition and motivation. Daniel Gilbert (psychologist) and Timothy Wilson coined the term in 2007. It has since become a central area of inquiry in the cognitive sciences.
Kirby, our beloved Chihuahua, gets crazy excited when he sees me holding his leash because he anticipates that he is about to go for a walk with me.
Your cat may show similar excitement at the sound of a can of Meow Mix being opened knowing meal time is arriving.
Not only do we fantasize, and we should, about our next vacation, like my dream visit to Tavarua, Fiji, prospection can cast far into the future.
For example, we might save for our children’s education or plan for our retirement decades from now.
Prospection has always been very special to human beings and now in the wake of Covid-19, it's even more important to remember the future. 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 very special. Prospecting about your future can truly enrich your life. Here are some of the benefits:
1. Make more prudent decisions
One of the most fundamental and important functions of prospection is that it helps us decide how to act. When we think about what the future holds, it 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.
"Delay discounting" is a phenomenon when people tend to choose smaller but more immediate rewards over larger rewards. One of my favorite tests around delay discounting occurs with children. It is called The Marshmallow Experiment. See it here.
If the kids could delay gratification by sitting in a room alone with one marshmallow until the facilitator got back, they would be rewarded with an additional marshmallow. If they cracked and succumbed to temptation by eating the marshmallow before she returned, they would not be rewarded with an additional one to enjoy.
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. But people don’t always choose short-term rewards over long-run gains.
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.
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. Manipulating how people think about the time until their retirement—in days rather than years—has been proved to cause them to start saving for retirement sooner, because the shift-in-time perspective made them feel more connected to their future selves.
2. Achieve goals
Prospection also motivates us to achieve our goals; but this is complicated. 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, people who fantasize more about successfully losing weight actually don't lose the weight. Students who dream more about their crush are less likely to start a relationship with their crush.
Having positive expectations (a.k.a optimism) 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, positive fantasies lead people to mentally enjoy the desired future in the here and now, and thus curb investment and future success.
WOOP is based on 20 years of scientific research. The method has been shown to be effective in numerous studies with people of all ages and in many areas of life. WOOP 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. #woopyourlifehere
Bottom line, 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. Be more kind and generous
This one is my favorite. How we think about the future doesn’t just influence our own lives. It can also influence how we treat other people.
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 if they had previously been asked to imagine helping a person in a similar scenario.
In addition, when people think more broadly about the future consequences that could come from helping others, they often feel inspired to behave in more prosocial ways. In one experiment, researchers asked people who 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 how they would be helping. (i.e. their actions.)
Don't forget to remember. Try your own experiments right now to see if prospection helps you to live a more generous, happier, more meaningful life.
Your Tavarua awaits!