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. 46% of Americans say the current pandemic has taken a toll on their mental health, according to a national survey. A United Nations policy brief noted that during the pandemic, 47% of health care workers in Canada have 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 have reported that while in confinement during the pandemic, 77% of children have had difficulty concentrating; 39% have restlessness and irritability; 38% have 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 this 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:
- What’s one thing you’re looking forward to doing in the future, that isn’t possible (or advisable) today due to the current pandemic?
- Why are you looking forward to it?
- Now picture yourself doing this activity again, in the post-pandemic future, as vividly as you can. What time of day is it? What is the weather like? Where are you and what do you see around you? Who are you with? How do you feel? Most importantly - when you imagine this moment, what do you think will be different about it, compared to pre-pandemic times? Try to identify at least one specific detail that will be changed as a result of our pandemic experiences. Imagine this detail of change vividly – how do you experience this change in terms of what you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch? How are you adapting to this change? (And if you don’t think anything will change when you get back to doing this activity – look closer, for even the tiniest detail of difference in the environment, or your actions, or other people’s behavior.)
When I first playtested this activity, here’s what popped into my mind:
- What am I looking forward to? I’d really like to participate in a road race again – perhaps a 5K or a half marathon.
- Why? There’s something about being together with hundreds of other people dedicated to tackling the same difficult challenge together that brings out the best in me. I think sweat, endorphins, and adrenaline are contagious, and I don’t know how to get that kind of a “crowd high” on my own. And I really want to challenge myself to do something hard and prove I can do it.
- How will be it different post-pandemic? The detail that comes to me first is this: I think runners will be expected to run carrying their own water bottles and snacks, instead of depending on aid stations along the course. This will limit contact between the people who usually hand out hydration and food at aid stations. Besides making it safer from a health perspective, this would be more environmentally friendly, which is another reason it might happen. Races waste so much in terms of paper cups and food that’s not consumed by runners. If we get used to this change, even post-pandemic it might stick and make the sport more sustainable and affordable. So, when I imagine myself running a race again, post-pandemic I can feel the added weight of a full water bottle on my lower back as I run. I can taste the gummy candy I packed myself for an energy boost, after I hear the tug of the zipper on my waist pack as I struggle to pull it open mid-stride. I can picture myself talking to other runners after the race about what they packed and why.
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 a vaccine, how to invent better personal protection equipment for frontline workers, or how to enact economic interventions for the newly unemployed? 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.
- It sparks positive emotion. The clinical literature shows that asking people to name and visualize a concrete activity they’re looking forward to doing in the future helps jumpstart the neurological pathways that allows us to look for positive opportunities and anticipate good things happening. When we’re anxious, we focus on the futures we are afraid of. When we’re depressed, we have a hard time imagining that anything in the future that could make us happy. But even people who are severely anxious and depressed can experience an energy-boosting and resilience-building burst of positive emotion when prompted to name and anticipate a specific future opportunity to do an activity they love. And when this kind of specific future thinking is practiced as a habit, several times a week, it has a long-term positive effect of reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
- It increases specificity in future thinking, which is linked to greater hope and motivation to act. A variety of studies have shown that the more vividly we imagine a possible future, the more likely we are to believe that the scenario is possible, and the more likely we are to take action today to prepare for it. Vague or general descriptions of the future are quickly forgotten. But when we center ourselves in a scenario, and we look at it from a first-person point-of-view, we “pre-experience” the future possibility in a way that is more easily remembered, recalled and acted upon. This is particularly true when we ground our imagination in our concrete senses, whether sight, hearing, taste, smell or touch.
- It allows us to voice our most personal values and needs. One of the things I love most about this tool is that when you ask these questions to lots of different people, you hear an incredible range of responses. And the “why” people share gives deep insight into their core values and needs. Just sharing a “why” with yourself helps you focus on what matters most to you, which is a proven technique for increasing an individual’s ability and willingness to stay engaged with tough challenges.
- It provides space to acknowledge and accept that change is likely, or even necessary. When we mindfully look at the practical and realistic details of what it might take to get to do the things we love in the future, we’re grounding our hope in the concrete ways we can adapt and bounce forward.
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, 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.
“What are you looking forward to, post-pandemic – and how will it be different?” is part of a public imagination campaign we’ve launched at the Institute for the Future to help make a better future imaginable, even as we live through these uncertain and previously unimaginable times. If you ask your network these 3 questions, be sure to use the hashtag #imaginable so other members of the IFTF community can find your conversation. Join our Team #Imaginable Facebook group or introduce yourself to team members on LinkedIn.
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].