Some of life’s most exciting moments hang on the promise of the future—the night before starting a new job, the plane ride before a week-long vacation, the fashion show for one before a promising first date. Anticipation can imbue the present with a sense of purpose. In hard times, like the present moment, it can also fill us with dread. Faced with pandemic-induced restrictions (not to mention offensively early sunsets), many people might be planning for a bleak next few months. Whatever the circumstances are in a given moment, it’s natural to sometimes focus on the future instead of prioritizing the present. Trying to figure out what's going to happen next becomes an issue, though, if it tips into a fixation.
The future is inherently unknowable; basically uncontrollable. (For proof, compare how this past year actually went to your vision in 2019 of what it would be.) So why do people spend so much time dwelling on what's coming, when we have basically no idea? According to psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson in a seminal 2007 paper about experiencing the future: The futures people dream up in the "now" elicit emotional reactions that help inform their decision-making. They termed this process “prospection.”
The most common mistake we make when we prospect, Wilson told VICE, is forgetting to account for what he and Gilbert called “impact bias” in their paper. Impact bias is the belief that future events will have a larger emotional impact on us than is actually true. “We think, if we win the lottery, we'll be happy forever. If our lover leaves us, we'll be sad forever,” Wilson said. “One will certainly make us happier than the other, but we're probably overestimating the overall impact on our lives in the long term."
Trying to predict the future can be less than fruitful because even if we do have an idea of what’s going to happen, we can't truly be certain about what our reactions will look like. "We’re more resilient than we think we are. We're pretty good at coping and finding a way to deal with life’s slings and arrows," Wilson said. "The bad side is, good things, we get used to pretty quickly. They lose their bang after a while.”
Despite its unreliability as an indicator of how we're going to feel about it, there are complex and positive reasons for trying to look ahead. Clinical psychologist Ryan Howes said that by taking precautions against foreseeable problems, we're assessing how to keep ourselves safe. “We get in the car and put on our seatbelts in case something goes wrong. We wear a mask in public in case someone we encounter has the coronavirus,” Howes said.
Howes cautioned that foresight becomes counterproductive when it consumes the person thinking about it, leaving them so worried about the future that they’re unable to prepare for it effectively. For example: If worrying about flubbing an upcoming work presentation motivates you to start preparing early so you can excel at it, great. If instead that worrying causes you to stay up all night, every night the week before you’re set to present, leaving you a jittery, on-edge mess come presentation time, that’s a problem.
Sahar Motakef, a postdoctoral fellow with CBT Los Angeles, a psychotherapy group that specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy, said “fortune-telling” is the CBT term for the cognitive distortion resulting from anxious rumination on what's to come. “It's a negatively skewed way of thinking that isn't based in reality, but that we often automatically start to do as a coping mechanism,” Motakef said. “People feel like, in order to deal with the anxiety of that bad thing happening, they have to prepare for it by rehearsing that scenario in their minds, so that, when it happens, it doesn't feel as hurtful and shocking."
Cycling through painful possibilities doesn’t actually help us steel ourselves from their impact—it just makes things suck more in the moment. "The problem with that is, if the situation even does occur, it doesn't take away the hurt and shock from it to have been ruminating about it for days or weeks beforehand," said Motakef. "All it does is [multiply] that time of pain.”
A 2013 study on the power of dread backs Motakef’s assertion that anticipating a negative event packs more of a punch than pain itself—participants had the choice between choosing a strong, immediate electric shock or waiting up to 15 minutes for a weaker one. Seventy percent of them opted for the stronger shock over the agony of negative anticipation.
In the case of planning for something like the "end" of the COVID-19 pandemic, which of course no one individual can determine in any real sense: “Worrying about the future can be a way of tricking the brain into thinking you have control over a situation," said Gregory Scott Brown, a psychiatrist and wellness advocate. "Is that adaptive? Is it productive? Probably not.”
Even if our brains and These Wild Times tempt us to join the ranks of prophets, financial speculators, sports analysts, or N*te S*lver: Howes and Brown both said focusing on external causes and concrete steps anyone can take to change the future for the better can alleviate future-oriented spiraling. This might look like calling a congressperson, organizing your workplace, volunteering with a mutual aid organization, or helping out a friend in need.
When you're commiserating with others about what's to come, Motakef recommended redirecting conversations that focus on mutual anxieties and thinking instead about how you might accept present circumstances. “We often feed off of each other,” she said. “If we can pause and actually just listen to that other person and take that in and to respond with something more along the lines of, ‘OK, that’s how things are today. Let's just be OK with sitting with the fact that this is where I am today,’ the conversation shifts.”
“When you're not focused on the future and you're able to think about the present more, that's when you go more into problem-solving and solution-focused thinking rather than the anxious thinking that really doesn't end up serving you,” Motakef said. She suggested setting aside a dedicated “worry hour”—a discrete block of time where you can stress out, journal, dream up worst-case scenarios, then exorcise those thoughts from the rest of your day.
Wilson said that, personally, he's remembering not to put too much stock into his own vision of the future, and is instead focusing on what Howes called the "positive version" of fortune-telling: hope.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Wilson said. “Even if we're exaggerating how bright that light'll be a little, it’s good to focus on that.” If you can't seem to stop trying to predict the future, at least remember that there will be good things waiting for you in it, too.