On the Importance of Futures Thinking

At the beginning of lockdown, I started offering daily drop-ins with other MBSR teachers, as you know. But you know what else I did? I went to Coursera and other platforms offering pandemic-inspired free (and very-not-free) online education. I took language courses, digital art courses, watercolor courses, Decision-by-Design, the most popular course at Yale (The Science of Well-Being), and a course in Futures Thinking by Jane McGonigal based on one of the most popular classes at Stanford.

The class in Futures Thinking informed all the classes I teach and triggered a major iteration of the course for Financial Advisors (MBSR is a standardized program and off-topic conversation is discouraged). It also informed my book. Fortunately, I kept up with McGonigal's work with The Institute for the Future and was able to be part of the inaugural cohort of the Urgent Optimist community, which is probably the most invigorating intellectual community I've ever had the pleasure of being part of, next to MBSR teachers (fun fact: McGonigal is a mindfulness practitioner).

I bring this up because of the benefits of learning how to think about the future (yes, there's a way to do it that maximizes the benefits). From unsticking the mind and expanding your idea of what could happen, to creating a sense of agency and hope, to cultivating optimism as well as preparedness, futures thinking has been shown to improve well-being.

On Predicting the Future

If you've taken one of my courses or have been reading this blog, you know that over a decade ago, McGonigal conducted a massive social simulation with thousands of people that included a respiratory virus originating in China, climate-change exacerbated wildfires, a media disinformation campaign around an anonymous figure called Citizen X, mask-wearing, and social distancing. This simulation was for what would be occurring in the year 2019. When most people hear that, they rightfully get the feeling that futures thinking is about predicting the future. But it's not, although that might happen.

Futures thinking opens your mind to possible worlds and allows you to pre-feel them. You pre-experience them, including all of the opportunities and restrictions that might exist. And when you do that, you are PREparing your mind. When "the future" rolls around (which for most people is one decade away, for some reason, although technically the future is now), you're less likely to be blindsided by it and more likely to be prepared. And I don't mean prepared for the actual event you're faced with, but cognitively and emotionally flexible. You're less likely to be in shock and more likely to already have an idea of your most skillful moves because you've practiced thinking about and feeling what it would be like if things were dramatically different.

Remove This Word From Your Vocabulary

It tells me something about someone when they say, "That will never happen." Or, "It's never a good idea to say X in Y situation." People, never say never. Anything can happen, anything can change, and there's a situation where it's a good idea to say "Things could be worse" to a widow. I promise you. (Adam Grant said that to Cheryl Sandberg after her husband suddenly died, and it was the perfect thing to say in the situation, as she was stuck ruminating, and if her children had died with her husband, things would indeed have been worse. For more, go here.)

A Simulation You Can Do, Right Now

For the sake of the reality that it's easier to open your mind about 10 years from now than next year, let's do some mental time travel (aka future episodic thinking) . . .

  1. Imagine where you could be in 10 years. (If that seems too far out—let's say you're 80—maybe next year is looking like plenty.) You wake up in the morning. Where are you? Who's with you? What's around you? What do you see? Smell? Hear? What do you feel? Pre-feel the future! Feel it now. Immerse yourself in it.

  2. What's on your mind?

  3. What are you about to do?

  4. Now, what signals of that future do you see in today?

  5. What would have to happen for that future to be realized?

  6. Likewise, what isn't true about the future that's true today?

  7. For extra credit, whatever scenario you imagined, picture a drastically different one. If you pictured a joyful one, picture the shadow of that. (Rather than saying negative, McGonigal uses shadow). You're not making the shadow future more likely; you're noticing cues it might be on its way, which means you might be able to stop it with behaviors today. For example, many middle-aged people can easily picture a future where their partner has died, because of, well, statistics. However, that aside, maybe their partner's habits today aren't great and the "natural causes" they would have died from could have been prevented. Do you see how thinking about the future might compel someone to change habits, make sure their estate planning is done, and maybe even have discussions with parents or grown children about their plans?

Future thinking brings up future decisions, situations, conversations, expenses, and health concerns. It's helpful, useful, and guiding (with regard to strategy—not in a predictive way). Not thinking about the future doesn't help anyone.

So think about the future! Imagine what you thought was unimaginable! Look for signs that it might actually be coming or be possible. Open your mind. Be curious, and allow your creativity to run free.