“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?