Science Says: You Need a Vision for the Future
Great people, it seems, have a clear vision for their future.
John F. Kennedy famously dreamed of putting a man on the moon. Eleanor Roosevelt had a vision of a world of equal opportunity for women and minorities. Nelson Mandela had a vision for the eradication of racism and for the establishment of a constitutional democracy in South Africa.
Arnold Schwarzenegger had a vision of becoming a body-building champion and a huge movie star. Roger Federer had a vision of becoming the best tennis player of the world. Madonna had the vision of becoming a great pop star.
Steve Jobs, one of the great visionaries of our time, was famous for saying, “If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don't have to be pushed. The vision pulls you.”
Pursuing a compelling vision sounds like a damn smart move. But does lady science agree? Let’s explore…
The Science of Hope
A couple of days ago I read a book about the science of hope called Making Hope Happen by Shane J. Lopez.
The book kicks off with a story about a War veteran called John. I’ll spare you the details, but the moral of the story was this:
“Through my work with John, I realized that how we think about the future—how we hope—determines how well we live our lives. John’s transformations, from thriving to suffering and back to thriving, were simple and compelling. When he had clear hopes for the future, his life was good. When John had a sudden break with the future, he felt his life was not worth living. As John reconnected to a meaningful future, his life became good again, and he was excited about it. And his health mysteriously stabilized.”
When we have clear hopes for our future, our life is good. We feel excited. Our happiness and health increase. We feel like life’s worth living. When we’re not hopeful of our future, things turn in the opposite direction. We feel demotivated. We lack energy. And life seems like a dread.
How we think about the future is a key driver of our happiness, health, as well as success in school, work, and life in general.
Shane J. Lopez shows us the research backing this up in Making Hope Happen:
“Other conditions being equal, hope leads to a 12 percent gain in academic performance, a 14 percent bump in workplace outcomes, and a 10 percent happiness boost for hopeful people. To put this in practical terms, a group of typical high-hope students scores a letter grade better on a final exam than their low-hope peers. A group of high-hope salespeople sells as much product in six days as their low-hope colleagues do in seven days. And high-hope people are just plain happier than their low-hope friends.”
In short: Hope rocks. It boosts your happiness, makes you more productive, improves your health and well-being, and even helps you live longer.
Now, guess what’s the #1 way to become more hopeful? It’s futurecasting – aka previewing the future. Lopez tells us: “Futurecasting—how well we can preview the future—is the fundamental skill for making hope happen.”
In other words: Your ability to see and connect with a vision that fires you up is THE best way to cultivate hope (and get all the benefits we talked about earlier).
Having a compelling vision matters.
Your Best Possible Self
In the field of Positive Psychology – the study of happiness and well-being – there’s an exercise called Best Possible Self Diaries.
Sonja Lyubomirski, a leading happiness researcher, explains how it works in The How of Happiness:
“There are many ways to practice optimism, but the one that has been empirically shown to enhance well-being is the original Best Possible Selves Diary method. To try it out, sit in a quiet place, and take twenty to thirty minutes to think about what you expect your life to be one, five, or ten years from now. Visualize a future for yourself in which everything has turned out the way you’ve wanted. You have tried your best, worked hard, and achieved all your goals. Now write down what you imagine.”
This exercise, which is all about envisioning your best possible future, has been shown to boost people’s positive emotions, happiness levels, hope, optimism, improve coping skills, and elevate positive expectations about the future.
In fact, Sonja Lyubomirski calls it THE most robust strategy to boost optimism in another book of her called The Myths of Happiness:
“Whether our optimism is big or little, many of us waver in our expectations of the future. Fortunately, numerous research-tested activities have been shown to boost positive thinking. The most robust strategy involves keeping a journal regularly for ten to twenty minutes per day, in which we write down our hopes and dreams for the future (e.g., ‘In ten years, I will be married and a home owner”), visualize them coming true, and describe how we might get there and what that would feel like. This exercise—even when engaged in as briefly as two minutes—makes people happier and even healthier.”
Lesson: Writing down your hopes and dreams for the future – aka creating a vision – makes you happier, healthier, and more optimistic.
You + Future You
Getting clear on what you want and developing an exciting vision for your future might be the key to your willpower, according to research.
Walter Mischel, the researcher who’s known for the infamous Marshmallow Test, knows a thing or two about self-control. He says that connecting with your future you makes all the difference when it comes to staying disciplined and delaying gratification.
He’s done some interesting experiments in his lab as described in his book The Marshmallow Test:
“… imagine that you have agreed to let your brain activity be imaged while you are inside an fMRI machine. Your head is deep in the machine, and you are getting used to the confined space as the instructions come through the speaker: ‘Please think about yourself.’ When you do, a distinctive pattern of brain activity will become visible in the midfront area of your cerebral cortex, which we call the self pattern. Next, the instructions ask you to think about a stranger, and in the same area of your cerebral cortex, a distinctively different pattern becomes activated, the stranger pattern. Finally, you are asked to ‘please think about yourself ten years from now.’”
As your brain is being imaged in an fMRI machine, you are asked to think about 1) yourself, 2) a stranger, and 3) you in ten years.
When you’re told to think about yourself, a certain part of the brain lights up called the self pattern. When you’re told to think about a stranger, another part of the brain lights up called the stranger pattern.
Now, what happens when you think about yourself in 10 years?
That depends. But when most people think about themselves 10 years from now, a pattern more similar to the stranger than the self pattern gets activated.
Most people see their future selves as strangers.
In other words, most people aren’t at all connected to their future selves. No wonder we eat all that crappy food and don’t take care of ourselves. The guy who’ll have to deal with it 10 years from now isn’t the same person… it’s a stranger.
“If you see more continuity between yourself now and yourself in the future, you probably put more value on delayed rewards and less value on immediate rewards and are less impatient than people who view their future selves as strangers. As the researchers point out, if we feel greater continuity with who we will become, we might also be willing to sacrifice more of our present pleasures for the sake of that future self.”
If you feel connected with your future self – if your future is valuable to you – then you’re much more likely to delay gratification and do what’s best for you today and in your future.
The stronger your connection with your future self, the higher becomes your willingness to do the things that will be in your future self’s best interest. If you can’t get yourself to eat healthy, work out regularly, or stop watching TV all day long, creating a vision and connecting with your future self might be a good idea.
Mischel shares a fascinating study on hypothetical 401k allocations. The researchers asked students how much of their income they would allocate for current expenses and how much for 401k retirement savings. (E.g. 85% for current expenses and 15% for 401k savings.)
They took pictures of the students and created images of 68-year old versions of them. Then they split the students up into two groups:
- Group 1: They saw a picture of their current self under the 401k % amount
- Group 2: They saw a picture of their 68-year old self unter the 401k % amount
The 2nd group – the students who were kind of forced to connect with their future self – put much more money into their hypothetical 401k than the others.
Short lesson: If you want willpower, connect with your future self.
How to Get Started?
Connecting with your future and pursuing an exciting vision makes you happier, healthier, more optimistic, more academically successful, helps you live longer, boosts your willpower, and much more.
Now you’re probably thinking, “Ok, great. I got it. I need a vision. But how do I create such a thing? Where do I get started?”
I suggest starting with the best possible self exercise we’ve talked about earlier. Spend as much or as little time on it as you want. In my experience, anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes will yield great results and lots of inspiration.
If you want to go a step further, repeat it for a couple of days and maybe even do a short version of it every day from now on. As Sonja Ljubomirksi says, even just 2 minutes will make you happier and healthier.
Take a moment to imagine your life in the future. What is the best possible life you can imagine? Consider all of the relevant areas of your life, such as your career, academic work, relationships, hobbies, and/or health. What would happen in these areas of your life in your best possible future?
For the next 15 minutes, write continuously about what you imagine this best possible future to be. Use the instructions below to help guide you through this process.
- It may be easy for this exercise to lead you to examine how your current life may not match this best possible future. You may be tempted to think about ways in which accomplishing goals has been difficult for you in the past, or about financial/time/social barriers to being able to make these accomplishments happen. For the purpose of this exercise, however, we encourage you to focus on the future—imagine a brighter future in which you are your best self and your circumstances change just enough to make this best possible life happen.
- This exercise is most useful when it is very specific—if you think about a new job, imagine exactly what you would do, who you would work with, and where it would be. The more specific you are, the more engaged you will be in the exercise and the more you’ll get out of it.
- Be as creative and imaginative as you want, and don’t worry about grammar or spelling.
Some things to keep in mind…
Not every vision is created equally. There are a couple of things to keep in mind if you want to get the most out of your vision…
1) Focus on intrinsic goals. When dreaming up your future, don’t go too hard on extrinsic goals such as cars, clothes, money, fame, power, external validation, or “success”. Instead, concentrate on intrinsic motives: How will your family life look like? What relationships will you enjoy? What passions are you pursuing? How are you making a difference in the lives of others? What type of person have you become?
(Check out my article on intrinsic vs extrinsic goals to learn more about why this matters so much.)
2) This isn’t the law of attraction. You’re not doing this to effortlessly attract anything into your life. It’s true: Envisioning a better future will make you feel good. It will get you fired up and excited. But keep in mind that making that vision a reality will be hard work. Research shows that you must expect a tough journey ahead… otherwise you won’t be prepared and you’ll fail.
3) Don’t tie your happiness to your vision. Focus on the pursuit of your vision, not the attainment. As Vishen Lakhiani says: Have a compelling vision for your future, but be happy NOW. Most people think they’ll be happy when they’ve achieved this or that. But that’s not the case. Research on hedonic adaptation shows we adapt super quickly after reaching our goals –we may be happy for a couple of hours or days, but after that we’ll be about as happy as before reaching the goal. That’s why it’s better to focus on the pursuit of your vision. Enjoy the journey. Don’t obsess about the outcome. And don’t neglect the present moment.
Keep these tips in mind and your vision will bring you more happiness and well-being.
Thanks for reading. Let me know if you agree with me in the comments below: Pursuing a vision, good idea or not so much?
Thanks for Reading
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