“The future is looking a whole lot better.”
It was the reference to that classic film “Back to the Future” in the title of this new piece of research on future thinking that first caught my eye. It was the movie by Michael J. Fox that first made him a household name in the UK when it was released in the mid 1980s. The article “Back to the future: the effect of daily practice of mental time travel into the future on happiness and anxiety” by Jordi Quoidbach and Michel Hansenne from the University of Liege in Belgium and Alex Wood from the University of Manchester in the UK is interesting on many levels – for one thing I didn’t know that the practice of imagining personal future events went by so many different names:
- Mental simulation
- Future thinking
- Anticipation of future experiences
- Goal striving
- Episodic future thinking, and my favorite:
- Mental time travel (MTT)
Mental Time Travel
This study focuses on whether positive or negative future MTT is the cause of happiness or anxiety, or merely a by-product. The researchers predicted that carrying out self-guided, positive MTT exercises on a daily basis would lead to increased happiness over a two-week period relative to neutral or negative projections. One word of caution here: Quoidbach and colleagues are clear that negative MTT is both related to high anxiety and can sometime reduce it, so in this study, the investigation of MTT on anxiety is purely exploratory.
106 university workers completed the study. They were randomly assigned to carry out positive, negative, or neutral projections daily for two weeks, imagining specific events occurring the following day in a specific place at a specific time and with as much sensory detail as possible. Examples given by participants included:
- Positive – After a great job interview, the boss of the company I applied for will tell me I got the job
- Negative – My hairdresser will ruin my hair tomorrow while I’m already in a hurry for Julie’s wedding
- Neutral – I will wake up at 9 am / brush my teeth.
Happiness was measured using the Subjective Happiness Scale (take your assessment here, need to log in) and anxiety by the State Trait Anxiety Inventory.
The results of the study showed that participants who carried out positive future MTT were significantly happier than two weeks earlier whereas, unsurprisingly, those who carried out the neutral or negative MTT were not. Quoidbach and colleagues suggest that positive MTT “is not just a consequence of happiness and might be related to well-being in a causal fashion,” and therefore, should be considered as a scientifically-validated intervention to increase well-being. They do point out, however, that the observed increase in happiness might actually be due to the participants having more positive cognitions and experiences than the neutral or negative groups, so further research needs to be carried out.
What was surprising was that those participants who imagined negative things happening to them in the future also showed an increase in happiness (although not statistically significant). One possible explanation given was that most of the negative events didn’t actually happen, leaving the participants feeling lucky (and probably very relieved!).
Additionally, in this study, negative future thoughts didn’t increase levels of anxiety, and positive future thoughts didn’t reduce them. The researchers suggest that trait anxiety may cause intentional negative future thoughts, but that this may need to be studied.
One very surprising outcome was that the participants who engaged in neutral future thinking practices (largely about daily routines such as driving or eating, or planning events such as buying groceries or collecting the kids) did show a significant reduction in their anxiety levels. One possible explanation is that mentally preparing oneself for the coming day might significantly reduce stress.
How You Can Use this Research to Start Your New Year
So how can you make use of this research yourself? Quite simply, the suggestion is to embark on your own daily positive mental time travel into the future if you want to increase your well-being, or carry out some neutral MTT if you want to reduce anxiety. The New Year is just round the corner, but I think a couple of weeks of future positive MTT on a daily basis could get your new decade off to a pretty promising start.
If you take up the challenge, let us know how it works for you!
Quoidbach, J., Wood, A., & Hansenne, M. (2009). Back to the future: The effect of daily practice of mental time travel into the future on happiness and anxiety. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(5), 349-355.
I haven’t read “Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist”by Michael J. Fox yet, have you?
Images from Creative Commons:
Michael J. Fox courtesy of Cliff1066™
Happy 2010 courtesy of lepiaf.geo
Your comment “One very surprising outcome was that the participants who engaged in neutral future thinking practices (largely about daily routines such as driving or eating, or planning events such as buying groceries or collecting the kids) did show a significant reduction in their anxiety levels. One possible explanation is that mentally preparing oneself for the coming day might significantly reduce stress”
I suspect its too do with mindfulness. I’ve always thought that neutral (as opposed to positive/negative) is a good place to be
Hi Bridget, this is a great column with very interesting research and conclusions! It’s inspired me to try a little two-week intervention along the lines of mental time travel myself, and will report back! What do you think is the difference between this MTT and “anticipatory savoring” which also has been researched a bit? Just wondering. Anyway thanks so much, well written and relevant! Happy New Year from Iris.
That’s an interesting point. Although I’m not an expert in mindfulness, I think it’s about attention in the present moment (i.e. not future MTT), which would suggest that the reduction in anxiety levels isn’t to do with mindfulness but something else.
Is mindfulness always associated with a neutral state of mind/absence of emotion? I’m interested in finding out more. Perhaps you or other readers could comment?
PS Happy New Year!
And a Happy New Year to you too!
I’d guess there’s no difference between “anticipatory savoring” and future MTT, but I don’t think plain savoring and MTT are the same, since the former is very much about being in the moment.
Hi Bridget, yes, I agree. Mental time travel is a juicier, less scholastic and multi-syllabic name for anticipatory savoring! Also, “savoring” has that implication of being sensual in nature, whereas mental time travel can really be about anything; it’s a freeing phrase by nature.
I do have another thought, or question really. Given that humans very often get into trouble by actually expecting their dreams to come true in just the way they want them to… (i.e. reacting with disappointment, frustration, even shock or anger when things don’t turn out the way they planned), do you think it’s possible to build into the MTT practice the awareness that, while we want the course of events to go the way we just envisioned them with all our hearts, that doesn’t mean we should “attach” ourselves to that exact outcome?
I guess that speaks to the age-old question of working/playing hard to create our positive future while balancing and harmonizing our desires with real limits… but I’m curious what you think.
Hi again Iris
That’s a very interesting question you raised – about whether positive expectations lead to disappointment when things actually turn out worse than expected. I had a look to see what recent research there is,and whilst I didn’t come across anything on attachment, I found a recent study on expectation – which suggests that it makes no difference whether you have positive or negative expectations, if the event turns out bad, you feel equally bad about it. In other words, it’s not the expectation which matters to how you feel after the event, it’s the event itself. The study concluded with the words of Seneca: He who suffers before it is necessary suffers more than is necessary” [Golub, S., Gilbert, D., & Wilson, T. (2009). Anticipating one’s troubles: The costs and benefits of negative expectations. Emotion, 9(2), 277-281]. I’m not sure how this stacks up with the research that’s been done on defensive pessimism, however – perhaps someone could comment on that?
They do point out, however, that the observed increase in happiness might actually be due to the participants having more positive cognitions
than the neutral or negative groups, so further research needs to be carried out.
Isn’t this the point. Positive MTT, or thoughts, resulting in an increased state of happiness.
I don’t understand this statement.
What the researchers are suggesting here is that the group which did positive MTT also had other positive thoughts and experiences during the period of the study. In other words some or all of the increase in well-being that they got might be due to these other things going on, rather than to the positive MTT itself.
Hope that helps!
I see. Thanks. Not MTT.
This article was useful to me in dealing with anxiety. I have noticed at times, but this article clarifies my experiences, that when I don’t think too positive or too negative — just neutral: brush teeth — that I don’t get anxious and can just do the next step or whatever things need to be done, moving towards my goals better. I think when I think too positive, it creates anxiety because the goals are high and I won’t be able to live up to or accomplish them. Too negative, well, too many paralyzing worries and fear and a lack of hope. So I am trying to remember to just think of the next task, plain and simple. Brush teeth. I’ve already thought about things too much anyway, so will likely still be prepared enough. I like neutral!
Great site! I am so tired of negative psychology!
It’s interesting that the neutral stuff works better for you. Perhaps when you break activities down into small neutral steps to focus on (like brushing teeth), it’s more like mindfulness?