The last few years of my career were a challenge. The work lost its sparkle. Perhaps, the long hours robbed the joy from an otherwise satisfying career. I trudged forward, imagining the grandness of retirement. I discovered a beautiful valley at the foot of the Sierra mountains. This, I thought, will be my retirement home. I researched dog breeds and trucks. The future looked bright. The anticipated pleasures lightened burdens in the moment and re-energized my soul.
We time travel. Our minds drift back to the past and leap to the future. These cognitive journeys then influence the present. Episodic thinking vividly creates imaginings of future events or recreates past joys and sorrows. Our thinking is a powerful tool, inviting present moment joy, intense anxiety, and sorrow. We have measured control over mental wanderings. We direct time traveling reflections through conscious intervention, utilizing journeys to past and future to benefit our lives.
Episodic Thinking: Vivid remembering past events or imagining experiences that might occur in the future.
Episodic thinking does more than distract. It has a functional purpose. The past holds wisdom; keys to healthy living. We create our lives through intentional action that is guided both by wisdom from the past and hope for the future. Research discovered that anticipated emotions from future events significantly impacts intentions to perform. If we expect a positive emotion from a hopeful achievement, we are inclined to work towards that goal (Hallford, Farrell, & Lynch, 2020).
Anticipated Pleasure: The expected pleasure from a future event
Anticipated pleasure also impacts the present feeling experience. Often by anticipating pleasure we ignite positive emotions in the moment — anticipatory pleasure. Anticipated pain also has a present moment correlate. What we think, therefore, matters.
While episodic thinking is linked to benefits such as planning, problem-solving, and spatial navigation, it also impacts functioning in negative ways, polluting the mind with unnecessary anxieties about the future and nagging guilt from past transgressions. Many pathologies are compounded by misguided and incessant ruminations.
Anticipatory Pleasure: The in-the-moment pleasure experienced when imagining a future event.
We are instinctively programmed to attend to threats first. Naturally, avoiding death, from a survival stand-point, is more important than eating a fine dinner later. We can enjoy our dream vacation any year; but must avoid the crazed driver swerving in and out of our lane now. Biological inheritance defines our sensitivity to threat. Environmental conditioning also plays a leading role. When fundamental beliefs see the world as dangerous, we habitually think to protect, visualizing disasters, while only enjoying an occasional hope for something better. Vague hopes neither motivate action nor stir anticipatory pleasure. The relief of avoided tragedy perpetually rewards protective thinking with negative re-enforcement — the bad event doesn’t happen; our worry must have helped.
While wild protections reward with some measly protections, the lack of growth goes unnoticed. We stagnate, never moving beyond our reoccurring woes. The world remains dangerous and we remain vulnerable.
We can’t wait; this haphazard thinking system seldom spontaneously changes. Our childhoods often fail to condition our minds to flourish as an adult. We must intervene. We have an amazing ability to change trajectories. We can purposely create helpful narratives from past trauma, while simultaneously stimulating vivid imaginations of a better future. New versions of old episodic memories can pull us forward, giving life to worthy hopes, and wisdom to avoid unnecessary tragedies. We can stimulate thought.
Daniel Gilbert wrote, “We look into the future so that we can make predictions about it, we make predictions about it so we can control it.” He continues, “The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things , any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed” (2007, p. 22).
The problem with thinking is we’re poor predictors. We may imagine positive futures while ignorant to necessary requirements for realizing the dream. We may enjoy visions of a wonderful retirement but neglect to fund the dream from our current paycheck. We enjoy the prospect of a new truck without considering the negative affect of making the monthly payment.
We must refine episodic thinking to serve our presents (anticipatory emotions) and enhance futures (problem solving, planning). While the world occasionally surprises with unsuspecting gifts, we shouldn’t plan future joys around unlikely events, dependent on outside forces. We must ditch most of these fruitless imaginations. Too much reliance on uncontrollable events leads to disappointment. We stand unprepared and stunned. We shouldn’t waste the present dancing in an imaginary future. Eventually, when the dreams fail, we slide into the “unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed” state that Gilbert warned about.
We must adorn our hopes with the jewels of reality, seeking guidance from those that previously traveled the path to our desired future. We learn wisdom from their experience. Inside knowledge prepares us for the struggles, and sound advice helps us navigate around possible mistakes. Reality based future thinking enhances what Richard Snyder refers to as willpower and waypower (2003). Willpower is the motivation and waypower is the knowledge. Together willpower and waypower create self-confidence to achieve.
Another common mistake is focusing on the wrong future event. We muse over the difficulty but miss the long-term blessing. The hopeful sixteen-year old may focus on the shame of failing a driver’s test instead of the rewarding freedom of a license. The balance of focus critically impacts the motivation of engagement or avoidance. Our thoughts our often prophetic. Out attention invites the consequence.
We must not underestimate the power of thought. Our thoughts drive action, giving life to dreams and mobilizing information from the past. We can harness this power and avoid the pitfalls of painful rumination. Healthy thoughts drive us towards the futures we desire, while enhancing our presents with anticipatory pleasure.
As for me, I still haven’t moved to that serene valley at the foot or purchased my Ram 1500 but still find pleasure from a vivid imagination of these dreams somewhere in my future. Other dreams, however, such as my retirement, have come to pass. I now enjoy the fruits of preparation, action, and sacrifice. Yes, there are still unplanned surprises — there always will be. But my anticipated joys that stimulated anticipatory joy now partially exist in the reality of the present.
Baumgartner, H., Pieters, R., & Bagozzi, R. (2008). Future‐oriented emotions: conceptualization and behavioral effects. European Journal of Social Psychology, 38(4), 685–696.
Gilbert, D. (2007). Stumbling on Happiness. Vintage.
Hallford, D., Farrell, H., & Lynch, E. (2020). Increasing Anticipated and Anticipatory Pleasure Through Episodic Thinking. Emotion, OnlineFirst, 1
Madore, K., & Schacter, D. (2016). Remembering the past and imagining the future: Selective effects of an episodic specificity induction on detail generation. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 69(2), 285–298.
Snyder, C. R. (2003) Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There. Free Press
Szpunar, K., & Schacter, D. (2013). Get Real: Effects of Repeated Simulation and Emotion on the Perceived Plausibility of Future Experiences. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142(2), 323–327.