The Power of Future Thinking for Healthy Living

Woman with glasses staring happily out window. Deep in thought.

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How you think about your future is bound up with your well-being. Positive future thinking (PFT) is an important component of healthy cognitive functioning. When people can’t imagine a positive future, that negative view often becomes a central feature of anxiety and depression.

Positive Psychology

Positive psychology is a branch of psychology focused on the positive events and influences in life. By focusing on positives, people find a life of meaning and purpose. The goal: you don’t just survive, you thrive.

Using what’s called prospection, you can think about and stimulate your possible future. This may include planning, predicting, and using hypothetical scenarios about future events. Seeing if you can find a way to set your mind on optimism and an abundant future despite the hurdles you face can prove beneficial.

How Future Thinking Helps You

There are a host of mental health benefits from allowing your imagination to participate in future thinking—from harnessing more motivation to achieving long term goals.

Motivation and Expectation

When you are motivated to do something and also have the expectation something will happen in the future, you are more likely to succeed.

Note, future thinking is different from fantasizing. With fantasizing, people might feel good and as if they already met their goals in the moment, so they don’t work or strategize for future success.

With future thinking, people come to expect to reach a goal. So, they often plan, make efforts, and work around obstacles in order to achieve it.

Visualization

When you hold a picture in your mind and energize it, you are visualizing. Decades of studies have shown that athletes who rehearse by mentally visualizing and imagining successful performances in the future do perform better.

Remarkably, you are stimulating the same part of the brain as you do when you actually play the sport. Using visualization techniques can empower you to a better future.

Delay Discounting

Delay discounting is a psychological term that describes how people usually choose smaller awards that they can obtain sooner over long-term rewards, thus discounting the delay. For example, you might choose to spend your money on a new tech device now, rather than saving it for a larger goal, such as your retirement fund.

When you imagine a future retirement in which you are traveling and excited, however, you connect more to that future version of yourself. It becomes more real and possible. You’ll therefore be more likely to invest in that future retirement and overcome delay discounting.

Managing Mental Health Challenges

Creating the habit of future thinking with a positive outlook has many advantages. In addition, it can help you with the effects of various mental health challenges.

Reduce Stress

It might be hard nowadays to find anyone who isn’t stressed in some way. Haley Neidich, LCSW, a mental health professional, says, “Individuals who naturally have vivid imaginations and are optimistic tend to have better skills in managing life's stressors and dealing with triggering events.”  She says when people are in positive future thinking mode, their body is relaxed. Therefore a stressor simply will not register as a massive issue.

Haley Neidich

Folks who are in a negative thought experience and struggle to forward-think will often catastrophize smaller stressors.

— Haley Neidich

Anxiety

“Interestingly,” Neidich comments, “I also find that successful individuals who have anxiety disorders and are naturally "future thinkers" tend to credit their anxiety for their success. This can be problematic as this reinforces that it's the anxiety and not a thought habit that brings them success.

"Since I work with a lot of high-achieving folks, I am often exploring with them how to tease out their anxiety from their natural-given gifts of imagination," says Neidich.

Depression

The power of future thinking can be a critical component of mental health treatment. Neidich says that those with depression improve significantly in depressive symptomatology when they focus on positive future goals.

She says, "A new way of thinking changes our thoughts. Being excited or imagining a positive, successful future enables feel good hormones to be secreted and triggers an actual chemical experience of decreased depression.”

How to Use Future Thinking

With all of the benefits of using your imagination for future thinking, you might be wondering how to actually practice it. There are multiple ways to do so; you can find the best way that works for you, and even experiment with new ways of trying future thinking.

Anticipatory Savoring

To improve your psychological health, luxuriate in thinking about a future event. Anticipatory savoring is when you are enjoying an event that hasn’t happened. You benefit in many ways: by imagining it, by finally experiencing it, and then by remembering it.

Practice

Take an inventory. See if you’re obsessing about the past or mired in your current problems. Pivot to thoughts about what you’re looking forward to. Give attention to future-oriented positive ideas.

Future Directed Therapy

If you are still struggling, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you think about the future and improve prospection. This form of therapy changes your automatic negative response and helps you replace negative thinking with more objective, clear-eyed thinking. This can help you move forward into your future in a healthy manner.

Or you might opt directly for Future Directed Therapy. In this form of therapy, you don’t dwell on the past or your present-day problems. Rather, you spend time imagining what you desire in the future and learn how to meet those future goals. 

Moving Forward

Use the power of your imagination to help you live a healthy life. Robin Hornstein, PhD, psychologist and intersectional/inclusive therapist, says, “When we imagine, we use parts of our brain to counter negative narratives, fear and hopelessness."

Robin Hornstein, PhD

Imagine you write a script for your future that is exciting, engaging, and possible. You smile and are forming a memory or wish in your brain, which releases the neurotransmitters that bring you joy. 

— Robin Hornstein, PhD

Benefits to having positive beliefs and expectations abound. Hornstein adds, "It takes the same amount of time to write a negative story which can bring your mood down. These positive beliefs and dreams affect our mental wellbeing and can improve sleep and intimacy with those around you. Some people meditate on manifesting their dreams, and you know what? Sometimes they achieve them.”

Tapping into our imagination can increase your feelings of self-esteem and confidence, lead to more positive choices, and help you thrive in healthier relationships. So, turn on your future channel and find happy, positive scenarios to imagine.

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  1. Allen S. How thinking about the future makes life more meaningful. Greater Good Science Center. Published May 1, 2019.