How Visualizing "Hoped-for Future Selves" May Affect Destiny

Your "hoped-for" and "feared" future self may influence who you become.

Posted Jan 22, 2021

Air Images/Shutterstock
Source: Air Images/Shutterstock

"Here is a secret I never have told, maybe you'll understand why: I believe if I refuse to grow old, I can stay young till I die." —66-year-old grandmother singing "No Time at All" (From Pippin, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz)

"Aging well" may be strongly influenced by the hopes and fears someone in mid-life imagines for his or her "future self," according to a new study. For example, suppose your self-perceptions of aging (SPA) include believing that you'll be a healthy and engaged senior citizen in old age. If that's the case, odds are your SPA is likely to create a self-fulfilling prophecy, the latest Oregon State University research suggests.

"Results from our study suggest that how someone appraises their future older self impacts how they perceive their current older self," the authors explain. This paper (Turner & Hooker, 2020) was recently published in The International Journal of Aging and Human Development.

"How we think about who we're going to be in old age is very predictive of exactly how we will be," coauthor Shelbie Turner, a doctoral student in OSU's College of Public Health and Human Sciences, said in a January 21 news release.

"Previous research has shown that people who have positive views of aging at 50 live 7.5 years longer, on average, than people who don't," coauthor Karen Hooker, chair of Gerontology and Family Studies at OSU, added.

"People need to realize that some of the negative health consequences in later life might not be biologically driven. The mind and the body are all interwoven," Hooker noted. "If you believe bad things are going to happen, over time that can erode people's willingness or maybe even eventually their ability to engage in those health behaviors that are going to keep them as healthy as they can be."

For this study, Turner and Hooker analyzed "whether two future-oriented constructs—optimism and self-efficacy associated with possible selves—were associated with SPA" among a cohort of 244 middle-aged and older adults.

The researchers' two-pronged approach involved measuring each study participant's sense of self-efficacy in terms of having the ability to become the person he or she wanted to be in the future and gauging the robustness of each participant's optimism as a Big Five personality trait.

To measure self-efficacy, the researchers compiled survey responses from older adults who were asked to tag two "hoped-for" future selves and two "feared" future selves from a list of options.

"Hoped-for" future selves included descriptions such as "a healthy, active person" or "a social person with a strong network of friends." On the flip side, "feared" future self characteristics were summed up by phrases like "a cranky, angry old woman," "chronically sick and in pain," or "being dependent on others for my day-to-day needs" and a tendency to catastrophize old age.

Self-perceptions of aging were measured by having survey respondents rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements like, "I don't have as much pep as I had last year," "Things keep getting worse as I get older," "As you get older, you are less useful."

Optimism was measured using a similar Likert scale; respondents ranked their level of agreement or disagreement with statements such as "In uncertain times, I usually expect the best."

Surveyees were also asked to rank "how capable they felt of becoming the person they hoped to be and avoiding becoming the person they feared to be." Data analysis showed that those who ranked higher in optimism also tended to have more positive self-perceptions of aging.

"Higher optimism, higher self-efficacy to achieve hoped-for selves, and higher self-efficacy to avoid feared selves were associated with higher overall SPA," Turner and Hooker write in the paper's abstract.

According to the authors, one way to mitigate younger people's negative stereotypes about getting older is to "promote intergenerational relationships, so younger people can see older adults enjoying happy, healthy lives."

"The more you're around older people, the more you realize that it's not all bad," Turner concluded. "Older people can do some things better than young people do. Increasing opportunities for intergenerational relationships is one way we can make people more optimistic about aging."

References

Shelbie G. Turner and Karen Hooker. "Are Thoughts About the Future Associated With Perceptions in the Present?: Optimism, Possible Selves, and Self-Perceptions of Aging." The International Journal of Aging and Human Development (First published online: December 28, 2020) DOI: 10.1177/0091415020981883