Stress is one of the biggest complaints people have about their lives. People worry about money, work, and family. They are also dragged down by events that have happened in the recent past. A bad test grade can throw a student into a funk. A fight with a partner in the morning can affect the rest of the day. A missed sale at work can ruin a weekend.
How can people become more resilient to these negative events in life?
This question was explore in a paper in the February, 2015 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Emma Bruehlman-Senecal and Ozlem Ayduk.
They focused on people’s ability to travel mentally through time. They suggest that thinking about the distant future can help people get beyond recent events that are causing stress. In particular, this longer time-perspective helps people to recognize that most events in life are not that important. As a result, while they may be stressful in the short-term, they will not have long-term consequences. Recognizing that events have their impact mostly in the short-term can make even their short-term impact less severe.
In one study, participants were all people who had a significant event in the previous two weeks that they found to be very stressful. Some participants were told to think about their life the following week and to focus either on their feelings or the implications of the stressful event. Other participants were told to think about their life the next year and to focus on the implications of the event. A control group got no instructions. Afterward, participants filled out a questionnaire about their current mood as well as questionnaires that assessed their feelings about the permanence of the event they experienced.
Participants who focused on their life a year after the event experienced less stress and negative feeling than those who focused on their life the next week or those in the control group. Focusing on the distant future also led people to think that the event would have a less permanent impact on their lives than thinking about the near future.
The researchers ruled out a number of possible counterexplanations for this result For example, they did a version of the study in which all participants were told that thinking the future (either the near or distant future depending on the condition they were in) has been shown to make people feel better about stressful events. Even with these instructions, participants who thought about the distant future felt better and felt that the event was less permanent than those people who thought about the near future.
Some of the studies looked at students who had just taken a midterm exam. Students who did poorly on the exam felt better if they thought about the distant future than if they thought about the near future. But, students who did well on the exam felt equally good regardless of whether they thought about the near future or the distant future.
In this study, the researchers also looked at the students’ final exam grades. You might think that reducing students’ stress by having them focus on the distant future might make them feel better in the short term, but not learn from their mistakes. So, they might actually do more poorly on the final exam if they thought about the distant future. In fact, students who did poorly on the midterm did equally well on the final exam regardless of the instructions they were given in the study, suggesting that thinking about the future reduced stress, but did not influence motivation to do well in the class.
Ultimately, these results suggest that thinking about the future helps to give you perspective on the negative events in your life. When something goes wrong, it is tempting to obsess over the details of what went wrong. High levels of stress are not helpful for getting work done in the future, though. So, it can be valuable to recognize that most of the events of your life—even ones that seem incredibly important at the time—do not have a life-changing impact.