This quote, attributed to the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, usually rings true to me: “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the moment.”
But then I read about research conducted by the University of Sydney Business School that suggests that “living in the future,” if done in a positive way, can actually alleviate anxiety and help foster an overall optimistic outlook on life.
The study involved participants who had either been involved in traumatic events like a natural disaster, or faced a challenging health diagnosis like cancer. The researchers administered a number of psychological and physiological tests, the results of which they measured against participants’ level of optimism about the future.
The more optimistic participants were, the more positive their behaviors and attitudes. For example, optimistic flood survivors said they would seek out a vaccine that would protect them from future illness, and patients with tough health conditions squeezed a hand-grip tool with more vigor if they were optimistic.
Professor Donnel Briley, the study’s lead author, says optimistic people are more likely to have positive mental and physical health outcomes, even in the midst of a difficult time in life.
Briley and his colleagues found that the optimistic participants in the study had something in common—an ability to conduct “mental simulation” of a positive future, which made a big difference in their physical and emotional health. For example, visualizing yourself exercising—and enjoying it—actually makes it more likely you will exercise in the future.
This finding has me thinking a bit differently about Lao Tzu’s famous quote. I will still seek peace in the present moment, but I will also endeavor to spend more time ahead and seeing positive things there.
Do you consider yourself an optimist? How do you think about the future?
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