“Quit, don’t quit. Noodles, don’t noodles. There is a saying: yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.”
You may remember this quirky quote from Kung Fu Panda—that adorable movie about the clumsy panda who dreams of becoming a Kung Fu warrior. It is spoken to him (by a wise old turtle, of course) just as he’s about to give up on his dream… There are many things that I love about this, but right now, I’m thinking about the “yesterday, tomorrow, and the present” part. Of those three, only one is unchangeable: yesterday. The past is written; it no longer holds potential, and therefore, any energy we give to it is wasted. However, today and tomorrow—or the present and the future—are both completely alive with possibility! What a perspective to hold as we move through the final three days of the year. With the holidays over, we can pause to take stock of where we are and start to dream about where we want to go.
Interestingly, dreaming about the future—something social scientists refer to as “prospection”—has several psychological benefits and a few practical ones too. Since we’re all in various stages of prospecting at this time of year, let’s look at all the ways it can support us in making our future dreams a present reality.
It can help us achieve our goals—with a friendly dose of practicality
The present moment and the future are indestructibly and infinitely linked. What we do in the present moment builds out the future, yet when we set our goals and intentions, we often focus a little too heavily on the future and give less attention to what needs to shift or be dealt with in the here and now. At least, this is where researchers say we get caught. They call it “mental contrasting,” and it says, in essence, that those who had high expectations of being successful at something (like losing weight, for example) were less likely to achieve that goal if they weren’t also considering what they would need to overcome in order to reach it. I know, I know, who wants to visualize all the things that will get in the way of our dreams? However, being realistic about challenges is necessary for meaningful growth.
It is so easy to want to lose weight and imagine how amazing we’ll feel when we reach our goal… but bad habits like late-night snacking or missing exercise are not going to get us there!
The scientists behind this study created an adorable acronym to describe the method of success they witnessed in participants: WOOP! Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. It’s exactly as it sounds. You identify your wish, visualize the outcome, identify the obstacles you’ll likely face on the way there, and make a plan to overcome those obstacles.
Imagining our future helps us make more sage decisions
There’s always that person who says they want to run a marathon but drops out at the last minute. Or wants to write a novel but always seems to find a reason not to wake up early to write. This phenomenon is similar to something that researchers refer to as “delay discounting”—it is choosing smaller, more immediate rewards over larger ones that they would have to work or wait for. The simplest example of this is choosing the immediate gratification of comfort over the effort required to achieve a future goal.
When you imagine the fullest, most fulfilled version of yourself, what do you see? Write down those qualities, and imagine living an entire day as that fully realized expression of you. What are you eating, what are you wearing, how are you structuring your time, and what are you working on? Really connect to that future self today and see what behaviors you can bring into your present. Do this every day, and it will not only deter you from the trap of delay discounting, it will also help you become the best version of yourself, little by little, every day.
Finally, my favorite one: it makes us more kind
A 2018 study found that people were more likely to help others with daily snafus—like spilling coffee on themselves or forgetting to bring their wallet to a store—if they had first imagined helping someone in a similar situation.
When people were asked to really visualize how their help would impact someone else’s future experience, they were more and more likely to give their help. Visualizing how their financial aid would help victims of a natural disaster inspired people to give even more. Imagining how their kindness would impact the life of a stranger by actually dreaming of the ways it would make that person’s day brighter inspired study participants to do even more acts of kindness.
The more vivid the visualization was of how their help would be positively affecting someone else, even when that person was a complete stranger, the more likely they were to be kind and generous.
Dreaming of our future potential is a valuable exercise—one encouraged by science!—but without us applying change in the present, that future will remain nothing more than a vision. With only a few days left in 2023, I invite you into your own practice of prospection. Visualize who you want to become, get bold and brave about how you’re going to get there, and then imagine all the ways you can bring more kindness to those you meet along the way. I’m no scientist, but it seems like a guaranteed path to a future that is filled with generosity, fulfillment, and joy.
Here’s to a New Year filled with possibility…