Three Powerful Questions to Spark Realistic Hope for the Future
Why do we practice foresight? It helps us anticipate and prepare for future challenges.
Why do we practice foresight? It helps us anticipate and prepare for future challenges. We spot new opportunities for innovation. We build consensus and motivate action around a vision for a preferred future. These are, perhaps, the most common reasons for thinking about the future. But foresight practice has another important benefit that’s often overlooked by foresight professionals. A well-designed foresight tool can help us feel better now, by lifting us out of depression and anxiety — especially during times of uncertainty and crisis.
Realistic hope for the future is something we clearly need more of right now. More than 42% of people surveyed by the US Census Bureau reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in December 2020, which is an 11% increase from the previous year. A 2020 United Nations policy brief noted that during the pandemic, 47% of health care workers in Canada reported a need for psychological support; 50% of health care workers in the People’s Republic of China reported depression; and 42% of health care workers in Pakistan reported moderate psychological distress and 26% severe psychological distress. In Italy and Spain, parents reported that while in confinement during the pandemic, 77% of children had difficulty concentrating; 39% had restlessness and irritability; 38% had nervousness; and 31% feelings of loneliness, according to the brief.
So how can foresight practice help bolster mental resilience during this crisis? Let me give you an example. “What are you looking forward to?” is a simple tool I created last year for talking to people about the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s based on clinical and laboratory research from the fields of psychology and neuroscience, looking at the mental activity of “episodic future thinking”, or imagining specific, personal experiences you might have in the near and far future. It draws on studies of how to increase anticipation of future positive events among people who are anxious or depressed. It also borrows a validated technique for enhancing an individual’s self-efficacy, by training their brain to visualize the future in more vivid detail. (Self-efficacy is a person’s belief and ability to take specific actions that can help them solve a problem, achieve a goal, or help determine how the future turns out.)
You can try this tool out for yourself right now. Just ask yourself these three questions:
When I first playtested this activity, here’s what popped into my mind:
While I really love to run, I admit that road races might seem like a less urgent problem to address than other pandemic challenges. Shouldn’t we be focusing our foresight on things like how to mass-produce and distribute vaccines for the entire world, how to invent better personal protection equipment for frontline workers, or how to enact economic interventions for the unemployed and those struggling to pay rent and mortgage? Is it really helpful to focus on personal passions, rather than collective needs?
And, of course, I have no idea if the specific change that popped into my mind will actually happen or become widespread. So, what’s the point of naming and imagining it today, in such vivid and specific detail?
Let’s dig in deeper — to see how this tool works to create realistic hope in four different ways.
A simple 10-minute exercise in imagination won’t, of course, cure someone’s depression. It can’t permanently relieve our society-wide anxiety. And it definitely doesn’t fix the underlying crisis (the pandemic). Instead, this is about creating a break in the relentless action of the present, to draw on the emotional resources of the future and the clarity of our core values. I think of it like a breathing exercise — a way to refocus our attention, take in vital emotional nourishment, and reset our mind and body to go back to the challenges of the moment. A tool like this can help most when asking ourselves and each other these kinds of hopeful and realistic questions about the future becomes a habit, a mindset that supports our well-being through difficult times.
This tool won’t work for everyone. Some people may find it brings up more negative thoughts and feelings, especially if they get stuck thinking about the lack of the activity they love in the present and can’t make the imaginative leap to a future where it is possible again. As a foresight practitioner, when I develop new tools like this, I test them, study their impacts, and look for ways to make them more universally helpful. But in the bigger picture, we need lots of different foresight tools that are specifically designed to create mental-health benefits and greater emotional resilience, so individuals can adopt and make habitual the ones that work best for them.
So… what is the world looking forward to doing again, post-pandemic? Why? And how, specifically, are people personally preparing to adapt and change for the long run? I’ve been asking variations on these three questions once a month on Twitter and Facebook since the global stay-at-home orders started in March 2020, and I’m always inspired and educated by what others tell me in return. I’m hearing very personal forecasts about visiting family, going to a beloved art museum, being a fan again at live sporting events, participating in a community orchestra, teaching a religious study group, rethinking their kids’ favorite holidays like Halloween, and going door-to-door to register voters.
I challenge you to ask a few friends or co-workers or your social network followers these three questions today. Open up a space for someone else to anticipate something good and share a core value. Create a moment for others to visualize realistic pathways to a future where our favorite good things can happen again and where our most important values are upheld. Let’s see what futures we can create realistic hope for together.
And one final invitation: The field of foresight practice urgently needs more research into the potential positive impacts of foresight tools, from a psychological perspective. Most published research in the field today focuses on the impact of foresight on corporate profitability and growth, or on the power of future scenarios to change public opinion and drive civic participation, or on personal behaviors like retirement investing or staying in school. I’m working to change that. If you have an interest in helping to conduct and publish peer-reviewed studies on the use of foresight tools to increase hope, alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, increase self-efficacy, and enhance other measures of psychological resilience, you can reach me at [email protected].
#foresight #futuresthinking #foresightlessons
Institute for the Future (IFTF) is the world’s leading futures organization. Its training program, IFTF Foresight Essentials, is a comprehensive portfolio of strategic foresight training tools based upon 50 years of IFTF methodologies. IFTF Foresight Essentials cultivates a foresight mindset and skillset that enable individuals and organizations to foresee future forces, identify emerging imperatives, and develop world-ready strategies. To learn more about how IFTF Foresight Essentials is uniquely customizable for businesses, government agencies, and social impact organizations, visit iftf.org/foresightessentials or subscribe to the IFTF Foresight Essentials newsletter.