Prospection is a powerful wellbeing tool. Here’s why

Forget living in the moment. If you’re seeking fulfillment, experts say looking to the future can have big wellbeing benefits.

Research shows our capacity to think about the future – also known as prospection – can help us lead more fulfilled lives, giving us a greater sense of purpose and control, financial stability, and motivation.

What exactly is prospection?

We all spend time thinking about the future, whether that’s the near future (for example, considering what you’re going to have for dinner) or the distant future (for example, where you’d love to travel to during your next holiday).

“We make predictions, big and small, that govern our actions every day, from where a ball is about to land to planning your retirement,” Professor Thomas Suddendorf, co-author of The Invention of Tomorrow: A Natural History of Foresight, explains.

“Our minds are virtual time machines; with it, you can relive past events and imagine potential future situations, preparing for opportunities and threats well in advance.”

How prospection can impact your wellbeing

Being optimistic about the future has been shown to heavily influence both physical and mental health, as well as coping with everyday social and working life.

The research also suggests optimistic people present a higher quality of life compared to those with low levels of optimism, or pessimists.

“While we typically view the future in positive terms, people with anxiety and depression tend not to share this positive outlook,” cognitive neuropsychologist Professor Muireann Irish says.

“In anxiety, the future is often viewed as negative and worrisome, while people with depression display severe difficulties thinking about positive future events.”

How prospection can impact your finances

Many of us set future financial goals, such as saving for a house, our retirement or a child’s education. But, typically, the further away in time a financial reward is, the less valuable we start to view that option, Prof Irish, of The University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre, says.

Prof Irish says that’s why your 20-year-old self is more likely than your 35-year-old self to prioritise a big splurge on a night out, rather than the long-term goal of saving for a house deposit.

Interestingly, research found that people started planning to save four times sooner for their retirement when their retirement was stated in days not years – for example, 10,950 days instead of 30 years – as participants felt more connected to their future selves when the future sounded closer.

The link between prospection and motivation

According to research published in 2018, looking to the future supports goal-directed behaviour and flexible decision-making.

“Prospection can serve as a powerful motivator to prioritise certain behaviours over others,” Prof Irish, co-author of the research paper, says.

“Many studies now demonstrate that our ability to envisage the future shapes our sense of self and identity, and enables us to prioritise actions that will lead us closer to our goals.”

For example, someone who wants to shift a few kilograms in weight and has given themselves six months to do it may face a decision between eating the cake to enjoy it now and resisting the cake to stick to their long-term goal of weight loss.

“Because we can imagine future scenarios, we often face a tension between our present circumstances and anticipated outcomes,” Prof Irish explains.

“A number of studies suggest that envisaging delayed rewards may help people to become more patient and shift from an impulsive mindset towards valuing more long-term choices.

“For example, studies have demonstrated that engaging in prospection or future thinking can reduce calorie intake, shifting dietary decisions away from immediate food rewards towards longer-term health goals.”

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Written by Janet Stone.