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Mental Time Travel Boosts Sense of Control and Self-Esteem

Imagining oneself in the future or recalling a nostalgic past can be beneficial.

Key points

  • “Mental time travel” may increase self-esteem and a sense of coherence and control.
  • One aspect of mental time travel is reliving nostalgic events from the past (called retrospection).
  • Another aspect involves imagining oneself in the future (called prospection).
Source: ATDSPHOTO/Pixabay

Published in Personality and Social Psychology Review, a recent study by Stephan and Sedikides suggests mental time travel can increase self-esteem, coherence, and sense of control.

But what is mental time travel? Let me use an example.

A friend of mine who is in a committed romantic relationship and very much in love tells me that he often relives the day he and his partner first met. He also imagines what their future would be like (e.g., their wedding day, their life as parents).

In both cases, my friend is engaging in mental time travel.

Simply put, mental time travel involves projecting oneself either forward or backward in time. As illustrated, reliving a past event requires reconstructing it from memory, whereas pre-living a potential future event requires imagination.

Benefits of Imagining the Future

Imagining yourself in the distant future (called prospection) allows you to step back and see the bigger picture—to focus on living according to your core values, achieving long-term goals, and living a satisfying and meaningful life.

It also enhances the feeling that future outcomes are under your control. It promotes the belief that your intentions, determination, and commitment will make goal pursuit possible no matter what challenges come your way. Finally, prospection may even increase self-esteem.

Benefits of Nostalgia and Recalling the Past

The same is true of moving backward in time and nostalgizing.

Nostalgia refers to longing and affection for valued past events and a desire to re-experience them. Previous research shows nostalgia can be an important psychological and relationship resource.

For instance, it can help people cope with boredom and meaninglessness. Romantic nostalgia may enhance passion, intimacy, commitment, and relationship satisfaction. Even nostalgic memories of an ex-romantic partner may have benefits and influence perceptions of self-growth.


Mental time travel emphasizes aspects of the self that are positive, abstract, and central to one’s identity, as opposed to aspects that are negative or situation-specific. In other words, it stresses long-term goals, personal values, and positive personality traits, instead of current behaviors and more immediate plans and goals.

Therefore, mental time travel serves as self-affirmation. The core facets of self-affirmation include:

  • Control: Feeling empowered to pursue desired goals; believing one can influence valued outcomes.
  • Self-esteem: Having a positive subjective evaluation of one’s worth (i.e., liking yourself).
  • Coherence: Being able to make sense of one’s experiences and to see life as meaningful.

How Does Mental Time Travel Foster Self-Validation?

To explain how mental time travel can promote self-validation and self-affirmation, let's look at another example, this one courtesy of an old classmate (let’s call her Emma).

Emma told me that before applying to nursing school, she failed a genetics course, which really affected her self-confidence. She felt stupid, incompetent, and worthless.

Eventually, Emma decided to engage in mental time travel—both recalling nostalgic events and imagining herself in the future. Doing so facilitated perspective-taking and seeing the bigger picture: She became more deeply aware of her core values (e.g., authenticity, social justice, making a difference) and positive personality traits (e.g., creativity, compassion, sensitivity, and gratitude).

And failing genetics no longer defined her.

Additionally, Emma found that by engaging in prospection and retrospection regularly, subsequent challenges became increasingly manageable, including those she faces now in her teaching career as a nursing professor. Consistent with this, Stephan and Sedikides propose that “self-affirmation might serve to strengthen the psychological immune system in non-threatening situations, thus protecting against potential future threats.”

Source: geralt/Pixabay
Source: geralt/Pixabay


Threats to the adequacy and integrity of one’s sense of self come in many shapes and forms: getting fired, being rejected romantically by a desired mate, receiving negative health news, failing a course or getting a bad grade, etc.

The research discussed suggests that by imagining one’s future self or recalling nostalgic memories, one could get in touch with who they truly are—as defined by their positive personality traits, core values, and long-term goals.

Several positive psychology interventions could be helpful for this purpose, such as nostalgia interventions.

Or, consider the Best Possible Self exercise. Take some time to picture a future where everything in your life has gone as well as possible. Imagine living life in full accordance with your values, having accomplished all your most important goals and realized all your dreams.

What does such a happy, successful life look like? Write about it. This exercise has been shown to improve mood, optimism, and well-being.

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