Raise a Glass (Half Full) to Tomorrow
Facing the future with a positive outlook creates a happy past to look back on.
Posted May 23, 2018
A friend of mine maintains a habitually pessimistic outlook toward the future as an intentional strategy for emotional well-being: “If I imagine the worst that can happen in any future situation,” he says philosophically, “then I’m never caught off guard when something bad actually does happen.” I try to tell him that he’s only making himself miserable over nothing—sacrificing present happiness for an unlikely future benefit—since the bad things that happen to us seldom happen in the way we imagine they will, but he says it gives him peace of mind to be prepared. And to be fair, aside from the gloomy outlook he seems like a pretty well-adjusted guy, so I don’t press the matter. A recent study at Harvard, however, suggests that my friend’s prophylactically pessimistic view of the future may be counterproductive, robbing him of future happiness instead of protecting him from future misery.
Devitt and Schacter conducted a pair of experiments to explore how mental simulation of future events affects our memories of those events after they occur, hypothesizing that adopting a positive outlook on the future can result in a “rosy memory” of that future once it becomes the past. In the first experiment, 25 young adult participants were presented with narratives of hypothetical scenarios that could plausibly occur, and asked to mentally simulate future events—some going well, some going poorly--that could happen within the next year. After describing these simulations aloud, participants rated each of them for a number of factors including emotional valence, vividness, and personal significance. After a 15 minute break, the participants were told to pretend that a year had passed and then presented with a number of short narratives revealing how the initial scenarios “actually” played out. They then rated the emotional valence of these narratives.
After another 15 minute break, participants took a recognition test of half of the narratives. For each narrative, they were presented with combinations of positive and negative true details, false details, foil items (not presented in the narratives), and neutral distractor details, and then asked whether or not they remembered seeing that information in the narratives. 48 hours later, a second recognition test was administered on the second half of the narratives, not included in the first test.
As was hypothesized prior to the experiment, positive simulation of future events resulted in a “liberal bias” for positive details associated with the narratives, and a “conservative bias” for negative details. For the future scenarios that participants simulated positively—as going well—they were more likely to remember positive details than negative details, even occasionally “recognizing” positive details that were not actually included in the narratives (false alarms). In this first experiment, adopting a positive outlook on the future did, indeed, create a rosier past.
In order to better understand the process through which positive simulation of the future produces more favorable memories of it once it is past, Devitt and Schacter conducted a second experiment in which participants simulated positive and negative narratives of both future and past events. Because a number of studies have shown a greater positivity effect for future relative to past events, they wanted to disentangle temporal orientation from the act of simulation itself—to determine “whether this bias is a result of thinking about the future, or of thought unconstrained by reality.” Repeating the protocol followed in Experiment 1 to determine the influence of positive future simulation, Experiment 2 examined the role of past simulation as well by having half of the participants mentally simulate hypothetical events as happening some time within the past year. As in the first experiment, participants who simulated events positively were more likely to remember positive details from narratives than they were negative details. In a follow-up survey, participants were asked to rate the emotional valence of each narrative, and the narratives that had been preceded by positive simulation were rated more positively than those preceded by negative simulation. Not only did the positively simulated events produce better recall for positive details, but they resulted in a more favorable subjective impression as well.
Devitt and Schacter speculate that this tendency of positive simulations of future events to produce more positive memories in retrospect—even if the events themselves were actually neutral in emotional valence—is a result of the impact of emotional valence on the encoding process of memories, with “negative affect enhancing specific item processing and therefore memory accuracy, and positive affect increasing schematic processing and memory distortions.” Positive simulation produces memories that are “more conceptual and contain fewer cues useful for determining source” than negative simulations, so that the generally positive impression associated with the simulations is mistakenly attributed to details that were not even part of the narratives.
When we mentally simulate an essentially neutral upcoming event—say, a weekend “team-building” retreat with colleagues from work--with a positive frame of mind, even if the weekend is as dull and unenjoyable as such forced attempts to foster workplace collegiality almost inevitably are, our memory of the event after the fact will be far more pleasant that it would be if we spent the days leading up to it with a mindset of pessimistic dread. And if the event itself defies the odds and actually turns out to be enjoyable, so much the better—we can enjoy it in the present and in the future. However it turns out, though, we don’t do ourselves any favors by dreading the future, even if, like my pessimistic friend, we justify that dread on the basis of protecting ourselves from its possible emotional consequences. Adopting a positive outlook toward the future gives us a reservoir of happy memories of the past to enjoy, even if the past itself was not as happy as we remember it.
Devitt, A.L., and D. L. Schacter. “An Optimistic Outlook Creates a Rosy Past: The Impact of Episodic Simulation on Subsequent Memory.” Psychological Science, 2018; 095679761775393 DOI: 10.1177/0956797617753936