Reality Check: Feelings for the Future

Imagine the future. Maybe your daydreams are happy ones—winning the lottery, lazing on sandy beaches surrounded by loving friends and family. It’s a future with happiness, health, and good will.

Or perhaps the future that springs to mind is filled with worrying scenarios and “What if” questions. What if my child gets sick? What if my spouse leaves? What if I lose my job? What if I run out of money?

Or maybe your imagined future conjures up depressing, downcast feelings of, “I’ll be miserable. Nobody will love me. Things will turn out badly.”

If you spend a lot of time imagining a miserable future, then you might wish you could stop doing that. Not easy though, is it? Even when we know that a practice is not helpful, it’s still hard to change.

Daniel Gilbert, in “Stumbling on Happiness” offers a useful insight about feelings and imagining the future. In what Gilbert calls our brain’s “Reality First policy,” we can confuse our imagined future feelings with what we are feeling today.

That is, when we look at a real object at the same time we’re visualizing an imaginary object, reality wins. This is generally a good thing. If you are imagining a hot sandy beach while you are, in reality, going out the door into the snowstorm, it’s fortunate that your brain tells you to put on your coat.

He suggests that this Reality First policy explains why it’s hard to get excited about a big meal in the future if we are stuffed full of turkey today.

So, the feelings that we imagine for the future are influenced by the feelings that we are having right now. As Gilbert says, “We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present.”

How might this information help? I tried a little experiment. When I recognized that I’d drifted off into an imagination that evoked a strong emotion, I stopped to pay attention to what was happening in the present.

The results were interesting.

For example, I’d been imagining a conflict scenario for an upcoming meeting, where the person I’ll be meeting tries to coerce me into an agreement that I don’t want. I have no factual basis for thinking that this will happen.

Then I realized that I’d just been listening to news stories about conflicts that I consider unjustified. Huh.

Another time, I’d read an article that sparked my righteous annoyance. A few minutes later, I’m idly imagining an annoying conversation with someone I don’t even know. Where did that come from? Oh, there was that article…

Finally, I daydreamed about a work product that will be met with great success. In reality, this could happen. (I deserve idyllic daydreams, too.) When I’d torn myself away from the daydream and actually focused on work again, I remembered that I had recently received a complimentary email about my work. Huh, again.

You now have too much information about my imagination, so let’s get back to you! If you’re concerned that your imaginings of the future are negative, fearful, or just plain unhelpful, what to do?

My suggestion: try your own experiment. When you recognize that you’re on an imagination trail that you don’t want, pay attention to what’s happening in the here-and-now.

Is it true that when you are feeling vulnerable today, your imagined future is worry-filled? If you’re feeling powerful and accomplished today, is your imagined future optimistic?

Gilbert says “…we mistakenly conclude that we will feel tomorrow as we feel today.” Yet, tomorrow, we’ll have new experiences under our belts and when it arrives, we may have quite different feelings than those we imagine today.

Is an experiment worth a try?

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