The Past has been the focus of psychologists. But what if that’s all wrong?

For more than a century psychologists like Sigmund Fréud or Carl Rogers have focused on the past. Mary blames her ex-boyfriends when she struggles with romantic relationships. Chris struggles with addiction and digs deep into childhood memories to find the first time he felt embarrassed. Saoirse isn’t content to be settled and she credits her stubborn nature to her being the youngest of her siblings.

But what if psychologists were wrong?

But what if these psychologists were wrong? What if the problem isn’t in the past, but rather how we see the future. This could prevent us from being the best version of ourselves.

Psychological studies have become obsessive about finding the root causes of mental illness. A growing body of evidence suggests that looking to the future could help you cope better with stress . Instead of focusing on the past, it is better to look at how our future . will be.

Many veterans, refugees, and other people who have experienced trauma and have mental health issues spend little time thinking about the future. They are instead narrowly focused upon the past.

However, people who have experienced trauma and developed a healthy future perspective report being better at coping with life, having fewer negative thoughts about the past, and getting better sleep compared with those who have a negative future perspective. So, instead of dwelling on the past, people who have suffered trauma should be encouraged to think about the future and set goals that help them to develop hope for a good life.

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Reframing a positive future is a way to build healthy relationships and to be open to the possibilities of life. With this in mind, Julie Round (a qualitative researcher) and I have experimented with a small group of newly retired women, some of whom felt anxious when thinking about their future. Some of them wondered where their future would take them. Many of them even doubted their worth in the world. This made them feel less good about themselves. We asked them their feelings about setting goals. They had mixed reactions.
We started by encouraging them to make a better future. Every day for four days, they wrote for 20 minutes about their “best retired self.” They imagined their dreams coming to fruition. They then explored how to reach their greatest future self by exploring the blocks of building (such as family, home and leisure). The children imagined everything going according to plan and were then encouraged to imagine what their lives would be like in five years.

On the last day of the study, they imagined their 80th birthday using their senses. They imagined how it would smell and what they might be doing with their friends, even people they had never met. We then asked them to create goals for the future.

They still felt mixed emotions a week later. It took them time to think about their future, both the positive and negative aspects. Three months later they noticed a positive shift in their moods and increased optimism for the future. The image of them on their 80th birthday stayed with them, and they wanted to ensure they contributed to their friends, family, and society just as they’d planned.

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4 Techniques to Create a Better Future

Your “best” retired self, or your “best” possible self is one activity you could engage in that will help you create a better future.

  • Anticipate Savoring: Consider small and more significant things happening in the near or distant future. Visualize what you would feel if all went smoothly. Feel the good feelings.
  • Develop Hope: Hope is about finding the will and the way toward accomplishing something we want in our lives. Identify what your ideal future looks like and then reflect on the steps to take to achieve it. You may not feel empowered if you don’t have a plan.
  • Imagine Your Problems Are Solved: Project yourself into a time when all the issues you’re struggling with today will be resolved. Now, describe how this was achieved.
  • Develop Goals: Come up with a list of goals you would like to achieve. Now complete the Values in Action survey of character strengths at viacharacter.org, and identify how your strengths can help you to achieve your meaningful goals.

Positioning on the future gives us options and recognizes that our free will is not a result of past events or circumstances. Although we have no control over our past, we have the power to create a better tomorrow if we face it head-on and take action.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t live in denial. The opposite of this is actually true. While we acknowledge the bad times that have occurred, we recognize that we desire a bright future and we choose to put our efforts into creating that future. Seeing it as a possibility is only one step towards making it happen.

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is a senior lecturer at the Centre for Positive Psychology and Health at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Dublin. This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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