If we go looking, we can find plenty to stress about: How will I pay the bills? What will the test results show? What if I get caught in traffic?
But the biggest source of our stress comes from ruminating about the future. As if we didn’t have enough to worry about right now, when the check engine light is blinking and the minivan is filled with kidlets holding ice cream cones, we go and worry about something that might happen two weeks from now. Maybe. Perhaps.
What’s up with that? I call it what-iffing. What if my kid doesn’t learn to read? What if I lose my job? What if I run out of wine while the in-laws are in town? Present-moment awareness — being here now — can be a great way to manage our emotions in those moments. When you are immersed, tuned in, otherwise engaged in the present, you are too busy to worry about what might happen later on.
Research shows that a little forward focus can be adaptive and helpful. In fact, it can boost our mood, ease our stress, and even help us make better decisions.
Three Ways a Future Focus Can Help
- Optimism. Consider your best life, say five years from now, and you’ll feel more optimistic today, say researchers. In several experiments, they found that people who wrote about their ideal lives felt better than those who simply thought about their day. Even thinking about the fun planned for tomorrow is uplifting.One practice that really works? Each night before bed, write down three things that you are looking forward to in the day ahead. You’ll feel more optimistic.
- Patience. Really, who doesn’t need more of this? People who think ahead a bit actually act with greater patience and make better decisions in the present. In-the-moment thinking can cause us to seek instant gratification: yes, I think I will take those shoes today, as long as I’m here, instead of waiting for the sale next week. Or, I think I’ll grab a quick bite at the drive-thru instead eating healthier at home.When we think about the future, we are more patient and willing to delay the instant pick-me-up for healthier and more fiscally responsible future outcomes. So next time you are feeling pressed to decide, take a look at the long term. It will make you more patient today.
- Less stress. Our regular routine can leave us stressed out and edgy. How can I get out of the office in time to make it through traffic and pick up my son at band practice? What will I make for dinner with the three bananas we have left? How can I deal with being passed over for the promotion? What can I do to regroup and reconnect with my partner after our argument last night?These little things that often feel so big and icky and hard during the day probably aren’t going to affect our lives much in three months, or a year, or five years. Probably not even an hour from now. By projecting out, then, and looking at the long term, we can see that our problems today won’t really matter tomorrow. That realization helps us cope better now. Did you get all that? With a long-range view, we feel less stressed in the present.
The best strategy then, is to toggle between a future focus and present-moment awareness to manage stress and improve our moods right now.
Portions of this post first appeared at www.imperfectspirituality.com
Peters, M. L., Flink, I. K., Boersma, K., & Linton, S. J. (2010). Manipulating optimism: Can imagining a best possible self be used to increase positive future expectancies? The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5, 204-211. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439761003790963
DeSteno, D., Li, Y., Dickens, L., & Lerner, J.S. (2014). Gratitude: A tool for reducing economic impatience. Psychological Science, 25(6):1262-1267.
Bruehlman-Senecal, E., Ayduk, O. (2015). This too shall pass: Temporal distance and the regulation of emotional distress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(2), 356-375. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0038324