“All that we are is the result of what we have thought.”
Facebook and other social networking platforms have allowed for reconnections with people who would have been lost to us had we lived in another time. High school friends I haven’t seen for decades are immediately accessible with a few clicks on my laptop.
No other generation in the history of evolution has been able to reach back with such ease into previous sociometric circles to sample how friends have fared throughout their lives. Other generations have not had the technology to do this, and a new awareness about how early indications during adolescence may affect future life circumstances has become part of our culture. We can readily see how our teenage buds have managed their lives, and they can see us.
This reaching back in time and considering the behaviors of our peer group opens the question to prediction: Do early indications of thought and behavior inform us of how someone will turn out?
It makes sense that researchers are now looking at longitudinal studies to see if early signs of thinking and attitude affect us later in life. Perhaps one of the best known of these is the Nun Study, a high-profile piece of research tracking the positive or negative attitudes of young nuns’ essays as they joined the convent, and the strong, significant influence a positive attitude can have on both health and longevity. For an update on that study you can check here.
But there is another generation coming and some intriguing research is casting some light on these early patterns. A new study on how adolescents consider their future may tell us about how positive and negative life paths are chosen. The study, led by Kristina Schmid of Tufts University, appeared in the January 2011 issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology. The team of researchers studied 7th through 9th graders, 13 – 15 year olds on a variety of measures and found that a hopeful future sets the stage for healthy and successful functioning later in life.
In considering such factors as goal selection (S), resource optimization (O) and compensatory skills (C) for adjusting to impediments these goals, the study was able to show a link between an adolescent’s ability to consider future aspirations, and favorable or unfavorable life trajectories.
In other words, do we become what we hope we’ll become?
Adolescents’ intentional self-regulation of goals they select to pursue, how they mobilize and optimize their resources to attain these goals, and their resiliency in coping with blocks to their plans (SOC) emerged as the cornerstone to understanding healthy development in teens.
The researchers asked such questions as students’ expectations in certain situations later in life. As an example “What are your chances for the following?” was followed by such items as graduating college, being healthy, having a job that pays well, and having a happy family. The responses were ranked as very low to very high on a 5-point scale.
The combination of expectancy factors generates a positive emotional activation. According to the researchers this is central to understanding the power of hope for the future: “…without hope, an adolescent might believe that goal pursuit would be without purpose or meaning.”
In the selection of goals the researchers measured adolescent preferences and commitment, as well as their organizational hierarchy in achieving them. As an example, an item from the scale measuring the selection factor is “I concentrate all my energy on few things, or alternatively “I divide my attention among many things.”
In the optimization section a measure of acquisition and investment of the goal-relevant means was taken. Examples are: “When I do not succeed right away at what I want to do, I don’t try other possibilities for very long.” Or, “I keep trying as many possibilities as are necessary to succeed at my goal.”
Compensatory skills were measured for maintaining a given level of functioning when the means to achieving the goal were no longer available. An item on this scale is “Even if something is important to me, it can happen that I don’t invest the necessary time or effort.” Or “For important things I pay attention to whether I need to devote more time or effort.” The affirmative responses were tallied as measures of hopefulness.
A Positive Youth Development (PYD) score was used to look at such features as competence, confidence, connection, character and caring. Higher scores on these scales represent higher levels of development. The researchers also looked at measures of the subject’s contribution to their schools and communities, as well as depressive symptoms and risky behaviors (such as substance abuse or delinquency).
The results showed that positive or problematic trajectories were predictable as evidenced by higher or lower SOC scores and hopeful futures respectively. Higher scores placed subjects in the more favorable trajectories, while lower scores manifested in more depressive symptoms and risk behaviors. In other words, according to the researchers, “…a hopeful future constitutes both emotional and cognitive activation needed to make meaningful the use of intentional self-regulatory abilities…”
Once you add hope to the list of variables in predicting which path we are going down in our lives we can determine who is on the road to thriving, and who isn’t. The researchers summarized their findings by adding; “…we propose that having a hopeful future will become a key variable in future scholarship about the positive development of diverse young people.”
My high school reunion is later this year and we can all take a gander at how we turned out, but this new piece of research tells me that science appears to be catching up to what Helen Keller may have said best:
“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”