Human beings are, by nature, forward-looking. We are built to be tuned to the future. Of course, attending to the immediate present is a large part of what we do, but much of our present activity is connected to a trajectory running into the future. – Andrew MacLeod, Prospection
Last July at the Fifth Biennial Congress of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA), founder Martin Seligman expressed his gratitude at being able to pioneer four game-changing ideas in the discipline: Learned Helplessness, Evolutionary Psychology, Positive Psychology, and Prospective Psychology.
Looking Toward the Future
Of these, the fourth has sparked his interest most recently. Moving from a recognized deficit (learned helplessness) through adaptation (evolution) to optimism (positive psychology) are necessary steps on the path to recognizing ourselves as successful beings. But what about looking forward to the future? Seligman is the lead author of the 2016 book, Homo Prospectus, a work of interdisciplinary collaboration about the human ability to assess what we face in the future. Authorship is shared with philosopher Peter Railton, leading willpower researcher Roy Baumeister, and brain mechanism scientist Chandra Sripada. Together, they identify four distinct ways of thinking that guide us to purposeful choice.Remember Fast and Slow Thinking
You may have heard of the first two which came into public awareness over the past decade. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman awakened non-academic readers to what we once assumed was routine decision-making. But we are not just guided by either reason or impulse. Some answers to our problems come reflexively, seemingly magically. That’s thinking fast. Reasoned decisions require focused systematic effort or at minimum, more time on inputs. We resort to this methodical approach when the magic doesn’t show up. That’s thinking slow.Two New Pistons for the Thought Engine
But prospection presents two more drivers of equal importance. You might ask, if we’ve got the two-stroke fast or slow model, why jump to four pistons? Because they’re there and very handy.
Piston number three is imagination: loosely structured or streamed, jumping ahead or gently meandering, it sponges up the 49% of our waking hours devoted to mental free play. Like sleep, imagination consolidates our thinking and recharges our neural circuitry. This free-form speculation also drives our brains forward, sometimes in leaps like the rapid-fire answers of practiced, long-term memory or the turnkey biological firmware of fast thinking.Piston number four, by contrast, is one we rely on more as we become better socialized. This last approach to thinking is a shared tool. We would exhaust ourselves in no time if we did not carry a bundle of quick access socially acquired templates in our brains. What if we had to reinvent all the most basic living procedures society provided us through instruction or by example? Of course, with this piston, as with the other three, there is also a downside that comes with overuse. Automatic reversion to social norms without reflection induces disengaged conformism which can stifle freedom, creativity, reason, and panoramic awareness.
Grateful for Balance
When you count your blessings, and see the spark of joy in others, you also see why balance matters in choosing among the four prospection styles. Which is the right one to employ in the moment? We tend to make less than perfect choices. We have blind spots. Intuitions or deliberations are as defective as memories, imaginary constructions, or cultural interpretations.
Fortunately, experience teaches. So does a gratitude mindset for the gift of wisdom and our appreciation of character strengths. Never discount the context-setting value of acknowledgement. Ask yourself, “What is the most generous, appreciative approach?” That’s usually the right one by all four prospective measures. Oh yes, be sure to acknowledge your own self worth while you’re at it!
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. London, Allen Lane.
MacLeod, A. (2017). Prospection, well-being, and mental health. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Seligman, M. E. P., Railton, P., Baumeister, R. F., & Sripada, C. (2016). Homo Prospectus. New York: Oxford University PRess..