I used to think hope was just a warm, vague feeling. It was that sense of excitement that I got before Christmas when I was a child. It lingered a while and then disappeared.
Working in psychotherapy with an ex-Marine turned farmer named John changed the way I thought about hope. This guy was known for doggedly pursuing what mattered to him whether he was on the battlefield or in the cornfield. When he did so, he was full of life. The he got sick. Renal failure. All of a sudden he saw himself as a man with no future.
With no thoughts aimed at the future, he was at best paralyzed with fear and at worst suicidal. That link between future thinking and current feelings and plans got my attention. I wanted to know more about how our thoughts about the future affect us today. So I became my own guinea pig. I made up some simple thought experiments to test my future thinking. For example, I tried to NOT think about the future. Go ahead. Try that for a bit. Unless you are in a deep meditative state, totally focused on a task, or sleeping, your mind goes to the future within minutes, maybe even seconds. I discovered that my mind jumps to the future even before my feet hit the floor in the morning.
I then tried to recall the first time I understood that the present and the future were connected through my behavior. As a little kid, I went to the bank with my mom every Friday to put money in our family’s Christmas Club savings account. It surprised me that she was thinking about the holidays even during hot and humid Louisiana summer days.
In another thought experiment, I tracked advertisements that played on our tendency to think about the future. Suddenly I was noticing how marketers make every effort to associate their products and services with tangible future outcomes. Bankers, insurance agents, and money managers promise to shield us from disaster and assure us a golden retirement at a beach house or golf course. Current ads from the Principal’s Dreamcatcher campaign and Prudential’s call for pictures of your first day of retirement spark images of the future that are supposed to pull us forward and make us behave like responsible grown-ups today.
Analyzing my future thinking and those “plan for your future” media messages led to two important realizations. First, we think about the future a lot—both because it gives us a emotional boost and because other people (parents, teachers, marketers) are encouraging us to do so. Second, not all thoughts about the future are created equal. I wanted to examine this discovery a little more closely, so I did what I often ask my clients to do: I recorded my thoughts.
Every day for a week, in fifteen-minute stretches, I wrote down each of my thoughts about the future. This gave me a snapshot of my future thinking. I quickly saw that my thoughts fell into three categories. Sometimes I was fantasizing. These big thoughts about a fast convertible, next summer’s vacation, or the retirement on the beach were pure fun and entertainment. They gave me a quick high—sometimes followed by a bit of a low. At other times I was dwelling. These future thoughts hyperfocused on the bad things that might happen such as struggling to get a job, taking thirty years to pay off my student loans, or never being able to retire. These made me anxious. And sometimes, I had thoughts that seemed to balance fantasizing and dwelling. In that mental sweet spot I had exciting thoughts about my future even while acknowledging the challenges before me. That’s when I was hoping.
Not all thinking about the future is created equal. Hope feels different from the other types of future thinking and its more potent than wishing and dreading. When hoping, I work harder today. It comes along with a whole rush of plans for how to move toward that future.
My thought experiments and my sessions with clients like John (who psychologically reinvested in his future and managed his illness with the help of his doctors) taught me that the real benefits of the warm feeling I got when I hoped for the future. That positive emotion opened my mind to what I needed to get done today. And I was compelled to act.