Imagining the Future: Why It Increases Happiness

Why does imagining the future increase happiness? Why do fabrications of the future tend to look more positive than the past or present?

In his book Stumbling on Happiness, social psychologist Daniel Gilbert explores how and why your brain attempts to fabricate the future. He also discusses the limitations the brain encounters while trying to do so and how it overcomes them.

Here’s how and why your brain imagines the future.

Fabricating the Future

Because your imagination is the faculty most relevant to Gilbert’s overarching argument that you make poor choices about the future based on bad information, we’ll spend time first explaining why and how you imagine the future in the first place. We’ll then move on to the types of fabrications your mind makes about the future. 

You Imagine the Future Because Doing So Makes You Happy

Gilbert writes that humans’ most basic desire in life is to be happy and that every action we take is in service of achieving happiness. Imagining the future is one important way for us to increase our happiness. We can define “imagining the future” as thinking about future scenarios and who we might be in the future, as well as planning for both, explains Gilbert.

(Shortform note: It’s easy to confuse the concept of “imagining” as Gilbert describes it with the idea of “fantasizing” or “daydreaming.” But whereas imagining the future is functional and goal-oriented, we fantasize and daydream for entertainment, distraction, or sexual arousal. Nonetheless, even fantasies and daydreams can be a way to maximize happiness: Children who daydream tend to be more creative, and adults who daydream tend to be more productive. Both creativity and productivity, in turn, can make you happier.)

Imagining the future increases your happiness for two reasons: 

Reason #1: Imagining the Future Is Pleasurable in Itself

You’re more likely to imagine good futures than bad ones, writes Gilbert, and this makes the act of imagining pleasurable. Often, just imagining something is more enjoyable than it occurring. For instance, you’ve undoubtedly spent many pleasant hours thinking about an upcoming weekend or party only for the event to not live up to expectations. 

(Shortform note: Gilbert claims that you’re more likely to envision positive future events than negative ones, which makes thinking about the future inherently enjoyable. But even imagining negative future events doesn’t necessarily make you unhappy. This is because you can come up with compelling explanations for why those negative events won’t occur. Therefore, no matter what you envision, the act of imagining can be pleasurable.)

Reason #2: Imagining the Future Gives You a Sense of Control Over Your Life

According to Gilbert, a second, arguably more influential reason why imagining the future maximizes your happiness is that it convinces you that you can take action to change the future. That sense of agency makes you happy

For instance, if you imagine that in the future, your kids will want to go to college, you can exert control over the future by starting to save money for their college funds now. This feeling of preparedness and power makes you happier. 

(Shortform note: The idea that you can gain control of your life by thinking about the future also appears in Grant Cardone’s The 10X Rule. There, though, Cardone advocates for thinking about the future and taking action to bring about desired outcomes not as a means of becoming happier, but as a means of becoming more successful. He recommends that to be maximally successful, you set ambitious goals for the future and take full responsibility for and control of your life to accomplish them.)

The feeling that you have control over your life is not only happiness-maximizing but also critical to your well-being and mental health, adds Gilbert. We need to feel that we have agency; otherwise, we become depressed or despondent. Gilbert adds that this control can simply be imagined: To be happy, we don’t have to be in control—we just need to believe we are.

(Shortform note: Gilbert presents the feeling of being in control as wholly positive and critical for well-being. However, in some cases, that feeling can lead to negative outcomes, like when people believe they have more control than they really do. When people perceive themselves to have unrealistically high degrees of control over their lives, they suffer from what’s called an illusion of control. This can cause irrational behavior like magical thinking—believing you can catalyze events by willing them to happen, rather than taking concrete action.)

The Mechanics of Imagining: You Use Existing Images, Experiences, and Memories

We’ve just described why you envision the future: because doing so makes you happy. We’ll now describe the basic mechanics of how you imagine things and events. 

Gilbert says that you imagine things and events using images, experiences, and memories already stored in your brain. For instance, when prompted to imagine a werewolf, your brain summons images of werewolves you’ve seen in movies. Your brain must use existing references to imagine things, emphasizes Gilbert: Without an existing reference, your brain can’t imagine something. This is why, if someone asks you to imagine a “sneedle,” you can’t do it because you have no stored images of a sneedle.

(Shortform note: In the same way it’s impossible for us to imagine something we have no prior reference for, as Gilbert argues, it’s often impossible for writers of sci-fi works to imagine facets of the future for which there are no current references. For example, the 1991 film Until the End of the World, predicted that we’d be using video-pay phones in 1999. At the time of the movie’s making, the scriptwriter perhaps could not conceive of a personal mobile device that made video calls.)

Your Mind Fabricates Your Vision of the Future

Now that we’ve explained why you imagine the future and the basic mechanics of imagining, let’s turn to the three ways your brain fabricates your vision of the future:

Fabrication #1: You Create an Image of the Future Using Existing References

Gilbert writes that you fabricate visions of the future that reflect events and experiences you’ve already been through, rather than new events and experiences yet to come. This is because, as described above, when you imagine future scenarios, your brain uses existing references—your current experiences and memories. The result, concludes Gilbert, is that your visions of the future don’t reflect what the future will be like. 

Let’s see this in action: You discover you’ve won a prize at work, which your supervisor calls “amazing office swag.” You’ll receive this prize at the end of the day. You spend the rest of the day imagining what the prize will be, and you can only use your existing images or memories of “office swag” to do this. Perhaps in the past, you received a new cell phone as office swag, or you remember that your friend once won a car from her company. You therefore imagine that at the end of the day, you’ll receive a new cell phone and a car. 

However, when the time comes, you only receive a mouse pad and a t-shirt. In this way, you’ve fabricated a vision of the future based only on existing images and memories, and this fabricated vision of the future ends up being incorrect.

The Upside of Using Existing References

Here, Gilbert presents using past experiences as references when predicting the future as wholly unhelpful, as this process often leads you to fabricate improbable future scenarios. This begs the question: Can using past experiences as references ever be helpful? 

In Thinking in Bets, Annie Duke suggests that this process can be helpful when making decisions in the present. She calls the act of thinking about past experiences (and imagining future scenarios) “mental time travel” and argues that this process helps you make more rational decisions. According to Duke, mental time travel forces you to use the deliberative part of your brain, which takes into account all possible information when making a choice. This includes helpful information about the past that you can use as a reference for good present decisions. 

For instance, imagine you’re deciding whether or not to eat a fifth cookie. You use mental time travel to reflect on past scenarios when you ate five cookies in quick succession and remember that doing so made you feel unwell. You use this past experience as a reference for a positive present decision: You decide not to eat the cookie and consequently avoid nausea.

Fabrication #2: You Omit Unpleasant Information From Your Vision of the Future

The second way your mind fabricates your view of the future is by omitting available yet unpleasant information from your predictions, writes Gilbert—particularly unpleasant information that questions the version of the future that you want to play out or believe will play out. Your mind does this because, as we saw in Part 2.2 when discussing interpreting the present, it prefers to consume information that supports your existing beliefs and ignore information that doesn’t. 

This inclination to ignore undesirable information means you might create an image of the future that’s unrealistically positive. Here’s an example: You’re deciding between buying a gorgeous Victorian home that needs a lot of work and a newer yet less charming home. You know—perhaps even from previous experience—that the Victorian will have structural problems due to its age and be expensive to repair. But because you love the idea of living in a beautiful old home, you omit these shortcomings from your vision of your life in the Victorian home and buy it anyway. Once you’ve bought it, though, you’ll be unhappy with the amount and cost of repairs required. 

(Shortform note: Gilbert suggests we omit disadvantageous information from our vision of the future because we don’t like to consider details that challenge our beliefs. But there might be an additional explanation for this tendency to leave out critical details: Our brains can only process a finite amount of information at a time. This means that in situations in which there’s a lot of information to consider—which house to buy, for instance—we simply can’t process it all. Our brains may then prioritize the advantageous information over the disadvantageous information, because, as Gilbert writes, it’s more appealing.)

Fabrication #3: You Think the Distant Future Appears Clearly to You

The final way you fabricate the future relates to the distant future, asserts Gilbert: You fabricate your view of distant future events by confusing a vague image of the distant future for what will actually happen in the distant future

Here’s how this happens, according to Gilbert: You can’t predict the distant future well because there are too many unknowns. Therefore, when you try to imagine events in your life, say, 10 years from now, you can only create a vague picture of them. You might imagine yourself owning a house and being promoted but be unable to get more specific than that. However, continues Gilbert, you don’t realize that your image of the future is vague, and you believe this is exactly what your future will look like. 

Using a Cultural Life Script to Envision the Distant Future

Gilbert argues that we mistakenly think a vague vision of the distant future is an accurate and detailed depiction of what the future will be like. But what do we base our vague visions of the distant future on in the first place? Gilbert doesn’t say, but we may rely on what’s called a cultural life script: the usual series of events that someone follows over their lifetime in a given culture. Cultural life scripts differ across the world and may involve milestones like graduating from college, getting married, and starting a family. 

Beyond influencing how you think about the distant future, cultural life scripts even impact how you remember your past. Research suggests that you’re more likely to recall life events contained within your cultural life script. This means that you more vividly remember your twenties and thirties because these decades contain many seminal life script events: graduating from college, getting your first job, finding a spouse, starting a family, and so on.
Imagining the Future: Why It Increases Happiness

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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