The Key to a Happier Future?

The Key to a Happier Future?

By Miriam Akhtar MAPP

I’ve never been much of a fan of New Year’s Resolutions and making a vision board can leave me feeling surprisingly flat. Recently at a Positive Psychology Masterclass, my co-trainer Bridget mentioned hearing Prof Martin Seligman talk about ‘prospection’ and how it could be the key to creating a happy future. You might consider your ‘prospects’ when changing jobs or think about how to attract ‘prospective’ buyers for your home, but ‘prospection’ is not a word you hear much. So what exactly is it? And why does it matter so much to wellbeing?

Prospection is the ‘mental representation and evaluation of possible futures’ and is part of a new attempt in psychology to turn the lens towards the future, opening the door to a greater understanding about the way we think and feel. The ultimate purpose is to enhance our capacity to conceive of and build a better future. One of the core skills of a happy person is the ability to visualise a positive future with all the good feelings that go with that, something that is a real challenge in depression. As someone with a history of depression I know my optimism muscle can quickly lose its tone if it doesn’t get a regular workout. Psychology spends much of its time focusing on the past to sort out the present but the future is largely ignored. Seligman, together with colleagues Roy Baumeister, Peter Railton and Chandra Sripada have explored the theme generating a new word – Homo Prospectus.

One thing I know for sure is that if you want to make a real difference to your future happiness then you have to go beyond intellectual curiosity, beyond acquiring knowledge to doing the practices. Fortunately we now have a range of positive psychology practices with the evidence to support their efficacy.  If, like me, you find that imagining a better future doesn’t come naturally, then it can help to start with gratitude, to turn the spotlight towards the good things in the past. At least here you already have the reference points of positives that have already happened.  Gratitude is about noticing the good things that you already have in your life. By developing your ability to find the glass half full in the past, it can then help you cultivate optimism towards the future.

Three good things is the classic gratitude exercise. Ask yourself:  What is good in my life? What am I grateful for? What has gone well? And how did I contribute to the good thing happening?

Sometimes it can feel like a dry little exercise but with practice you’ll start connecting with a heartfelt positive emotion. This next practice changes the time perspective, applying three good things to the future.

Looking forward to tomorrow: Think of 3 positive things that are happening tomorrow. Then choose one item from the list.  What exactly are you looking forward to? What kind of positive emotions do you think it might generate?

As you list the emotions, see if you can anticipate how they will feel in your body. Relax and stay with it for a couple of minutes. This practice is a really good one to start developing your optimism muscle. If you want to take it to the next level, I recommend the ‘Best Possible Self’ exercise, which involves spending 15 minutes a day for a minimum of 4 days writing about how you would like your life to be when everything works out for the best. These instructions from the Greater Good Science Center are useful to help you navigate around some of the obstacles that can block you if your optimism muscle is a little flabby.

Best Possible Self: Take a moment to imagine your life in the future. What is the best possible life you can imagine? Consider all of the relevant areas of your life, such as your career, academic work, relationships, hobbies, and/or health. What would happen in these areas of your life in your best possible future? For the next 15 minutes, write continuously about what you imagine this best possible future to be. 

As a coach I like to regularly check in with the practices I share with clients, so this year I’ve used the precious days between Xmas and New Year, to revisit the Best Possible Self exercise. Over 4 days I picked up my laptop first thing in the morning and headed to one of my favourite cafes in Bristol to reconnect with it. It worked! The writing flowed, each day building on the ideas that emerged from the previous day. And it left me feeling good – a tiny flame of optimism had been lit.  This practice is known to boost the mood, leading to higher levels of positive emotions, happiness and fewer visits to the doctor further down the line!

Imagining a Better 2019

What helps us look forward to a better year?  To go further with prospection you could see the New Year as a project, in which you aim to lay the foundations of wellbeing to flourish and prosper.

The Positive Psychology Foundations course is an online training which you can use for your personal wellbeing or pass onto others through your professional practice.

We use Seligman’s PERMA model as the basis for the 8 webinars with additional foundations on Resilience, Mindfulness and the Physical Body to reflect some of the wider ingredients of wellbeing.

From January 1 2019 –  A free mini-trial, which acts as a taster of the course becomes available. Jump straight in here.

On January 8 2019 – Join us for a free webinar on Positive Psychology for Me, You and Us, which will give you a flavour of the course. If you can’t join us live, there will be a replay button so that you can tune in at a time to suit you.

From January 22 2019 – Join the 7th cohort of the Positive Psychology Foundations wherever you are in the world from the comfort of your sofa or replay the webinars at a pace that works best for you.

Pictures courtesy of Pixabay.

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