Can’t Wait!

By Jett Stone, February 20 2008

Our presidential candidates are offering images of a new post-election world and boasting about their respective experience—but the forward-thinking chants are more naturally rousing: New research shows that when we’re imagining the future, we experience more vivid emotions than when we’re describing events that have actually happened.

While psychologists have recommended that we savor good memories to improve our well being, the new finding suggests that daydreaming about good times yet to come may also make us happier. Though researchers aren’t certain as to why visions of the future are more emotional, it probably has to do with our brain’s ability to meld different potential scenarios into one colorful collage, whereas our memories only have the limited facts at hand to reconstruct what’s already occurred.

We may be tempted to rush into events that we know will be enjoyable, but it’s better to postpone those experiences and relish the anticipation, says Leaf Van Boven of Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management, who conducted the research with Laurence Ashworth of Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada.

Therapists often encourage patients to explore the past and speculate about the future, but one time frame may be preferable to the other, depending on what the therapeutic goals are. Dwelling on your upcoming birthday blowout is mood enhancing, but the flip side of the new research is that it shows how focusing on negative future events—a looming court date, for example—can cause us unnecessary anxiety, thanks to our overactive imaginations. A better way to cope, says Van Boven, is to trick our mental time machines by pretending the court battle has already been waged, and imagining it in the past tense, where it won’t be recalled as floridly.

If you’re preparing for a nerve-racking speech, for example, instead of feverishly anticipating the crowd reaction, it may be more calming to switch perspectives and picture the speech two weeks later—as if it were behind you. Then you can “recall” the end of the speech, when the audience erupted in applause.

Van Boven says whether we’re oriented in the future or past affects the decisions we make, which is why he thinks his research could shed light on how our emotional reactions to leaders can be manipulated with time references. “Since both Democrats and Republicans are responding to the word ‘change,'” he says, “they must all be excited by the potential for a brighter future.” Maybe we should postpone the election and just sit with those happy fantasies a while longer.