Last month I pulled off a surprise celebration for my husband’s 80th birthday. My remarks to a crowd of over 80 well-wishers (actually it was more like a TEDtalk and I had a great time giving it) were a retrospective of his life’s accomplishments and a tribute to the values he lives.
Afterwards, the crowd was definitely in-the-moment. The time together made us all happy.
The past and the present worked together to make this occasion a success. Nothing was missing. Nothing more was needed.
At the threshold of the last third of life we often view our lives in this combination – the past and the present.
We know there is a future to unfold. But we feel we have time to deal with that. We’ll figure out how to be thrilled with the last part of life soon.
But not now. Now we need to perform our Downward Dogs, take another trip to Newfoundland, lean in to a still demanding career, take a nap, get the kid through college, digitize 1800 photos or volunteer to teach math to an eighth grader who appears to care less.
Ahead, however, is a transition that involves role change, redefinition and activity shifts. It’s a biggie. Maybe the hardest you ever experienced.
Thumbing through your college year book marveling at how far you’ve come isn’t going to light the way.
Neither is living in the moment. What will light the way?
The clarity and fever pitch energy needed to live out your best life begins upon a star.
So grab your cork mat and zoom toward the night sky. From this panorama gaze at life and the possibilities before you.
Wish your possible futures. Hold it for as long as you can.
When it comes to higher levels of well-being and a better ability to navigate the future, the past and the present may not be nearly as important as putting your brain in a future-state.
I say this at the risk of insulting many readers participating in the soaring popularity of Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the awareness that arises when one pays purposeful attention to the present moment. It can be achieved through meditation or simply by observing your surroundings without judgment.
What does Mindfulness get you? What doesn’t it get you?
Among its theorized benefits are self-control, objectivity, affect tolerance, enhanced flexibility, equanimity, improved concentration and mental clarity, emotional intelligence and the ability to relate to others and one’s self with kindness, acceptance and compassion.
From politicians to CEOs to engineers, Mindfulness is big business. Corporations are investing and building cultures on mindfulness at Nike, Target, Genentech, Google, Facebook, eBay, Twitter, General Mills, Ford Motor Company, Kaiser Permanente, Aetna, Cargill, Plantronics, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Hearst Publications, to name just a few.
In addition to courses, Google has also built a labyrinth for walking meditation. Evan Williams, one of Twitter’s founders, has built a new venture, the Obvious Corporation, a start-up incubator and investment vehicle based on mindfulness. Congressman Tim Ryan from Ohio tries hard to inspire the political arena toward mindfulness. Good Luck Tim!
If you are a fan of being-in-the-moment, I’m with you. But not all the way, all the time.
Because purposely spending time in the future reigns absolute as the better way to begin your 3rd third of life.
I’ve done my share of leader-led dream-binging in various settings where the woo factor was high. I mostly hate the dream-it-do-it thing so my mind wanders to my store list or when I’ll find time to get my oil changed. When it came time to share, I’d make something up.
What did it matter what I wished for? The belief in the laws of attraction have always been lost on me.
How does thinking about the future shape your present and future behavior?
According to Martin Seligman, a leading authority in the field of Positive Psychology, we have been underestimating the impact of the future. Humans are, by nature, “prospective,” he says. “It is anticipating and evaluating future possibilities for the guidance of thought and action that is the cornerstone of human success.”
Prospective psychology refers broadly to the mental representation and evaluation of possible futures. This ability shapes emotion which in turn shapes motivation.
Let’s try to make this real for us lay people. Using prospection we generate positive ideas that lead to anticipation that triggers emotions that will guide us toward the future.
Got it? Hang in and you will. I promise!
What makes prospective theory revolutionary is not the idea that human behavior is guided by emotions, but the idea that human behavior is guided by “anticipated emotions.”
‘What’s Next?’ The Brain Loves This.
Looking into the future consciously and unconsciously is a central function of our brain. For the past century most psychologist and neuroscientists assumed the brain liked to peruse the past or ruminate the present.
Turns out our mind is mainly drawn to the future, not driven by the past.
Research on our orientation toward the future is fascinating:
- In Chicago researchers pinged nearly 500 adults during the day to record their immediate thoughts and moods. But they actually thought about the future three times more often than the past. And the few thoughts about a past event involved consideration of its future implication.
- When making plans, they reported higher levels of happiness and lower levels of stress than at other times.
- Although they sometimes feared what might go wrong, on average there were twice as many thoughts of what they hoped would happen
- In addition, a research study done at the University of London by A.K. McLeod, and Conway in 2005 concluded that subjects with expectations of future positive experiences were more likely to measure higher on a scale of subjective well-being.
In last month’s New York Times article, “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment,” Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, affirms that prospection– our contemplation of the future – is what makes us wise.
“When we consider our prospects,” he states, “We thrive.”
Shall we conclude then that staying in the moment is being oversold? That the past can guide you but the future can guide you better? M-m-m-m-m.
Future Time Perspective
One approach to leaving mid-life is to think of the future as loss and diminishment. That’s pretty understandable from my point of view.
On a recent visit, Liam, my grandson eyed a charcoal portrait of me in my early thirties. He looks back and forth from me to the picture with five-year-old eyes.
Is that you?
When did you change faces?
Okay, it’s a fact. I don’t look like once did. Chances are you don’t look you’re your high school graduation picture either.
(And we certainly won’t get into the fact that the charcoal is of me in the nude.)
At the threshold of leaving midlife, “loss and diminishment” blaze a true trail not only of our physical being, but of our emotional lives. Adult development requires us to adjust to the ‘empty nest,’ re-enter the workforce, get kicked out of the workforce, become caretakers for parents, and experience the death of partners and friends.
When those experiences happen as the amount of time left to live recedes, individuals can shift away from a focus on future-oriented goals according to developmental psychologists, Carol Magai and Beth Halpern.
In case you don’t already know but I bet you do, the growing-older experience brings time with limits and horizons that include our deaths; it can all get a little complex. Living in the moment is a known place – a safe place – to rest our weary souls.
But staying in the present could be at the expense of generating an enthusiastic embrace of the paramount goals of productivity and enthusiasm in later life.
Yep, There’s Endorphins Involved
Prospection offers a different approach. At the core of prospection is the act of anticipating.
Remember anticipation? Most people anticipate happy experiences.
Just thinking about the future and positive things gets us all – well super excited and happy. Prospection sends endorphins to our brain and motivates us. Perhaps you are hard pressed to think of any grown-up anticipation possibilities.
I know two little people who don’t know any better than to think future-happy thoughts.
In a recent week-long visit, my two grandchildren, Liam and Lucy, received presents each day. (Yes, I’m indulgent.)
When you bring a colorfully wrapped package into the room (ostensibly to share), no matter what these children are doing they stop as if on the invisible dime. They race across the room, come as close as they can to their GG (me) who holds the pretty box and look up with big bright dancing eyes!
Excitement exudes from their pores; they jump up and down; they squeal with delight.
What’s in there? Is it for me?
We’re over-the-moon happy even though we don’t know what’s in the box.
Are Liam and Lucy delighted with their presents? Does the joy last?
Sometimes it actually does, but not all the time. (They still love the Magna-Tiles; glitter play dough was a bomb.)
But to witness those moments of high desire – just the thought of what could be – and the emotion that ensues is a wow and made me ask myself when was last time I felt like that?
When’s the last time you felt that? Close to that? Somewhat close to that?
To stay open to dreams and possibilities is one of the most important skills for living your 3rd third.
But Prospective Psychology suggests that it’s more than just staying open to dreams and possibilities. This is about creating an emotional climate of positive, joyful, curious, exciting feelings as you stand at the threshold of the last part of your lifetime.
Forecasting Your Life
My friend, Susan, faced dying of ovarian cancer by participating in treatments and experiments around the globe. Susan would never talk about her imminent death even with her family. The subject was off limits.
But she would talk about the team of experts she had tracked down that offered a different procedure with possibilities for extending her life.
Finally, she changed her approach. Within days of landing in Atlanta after her last failed treatment in Germany, she sold her house in one upscale neighborhood and bought another in a more upscale neighborhood. It was a grand, big house but not decorated in her style.
From then on her designer skipped along side the gurney at Emory Hospital flipping Susan fabric samples and paint chips as she was wheeled into the operating room for this or that. The conversation was animated and focused on the task of decoration.
Later coming out of the anesthesia, Susan would see the selected fabric samples and paint colors spread out on before her on the white hospital sheet. The decorator showed up and they started in again making final selections.
This happened over and over for each room of the house. Many friends, me included, thought it was a little odd and unusual to spend time in the future tense with so little present time remaining.
I found the courage to ask. “Susan, why are you doing this?”
She looked at me as clear eyed as the day I first met her making a keynote presentation to C-suite leaders. Her response reflected conviction and it was obvious she was well-thought through.
“Barbara, this house is my future and decorating it makes me happy.” Then she softly added, “And it gives me hope.”
Susan moved into that house and lived three months.
Though her chances of ever living there were slim, she chose to see it as a possibility. From that perspective, she flourished.
Seeing yourself in a future possibility can move the spirit, gather emotional well-being and create hope. I learned from Susan that the dream never is as important as the anticipation of the dream.
The emotions of anticipation are powerful, not powerful enough to cure a disease perhaps, but powerful.
The idea of prospection may never become a best practice or assume the popularity of “living in the moment.” But in my work the vast majority of individuals facing the last third of life give their future short shrift … and are sorry about it later.
Most feel they are doing okay figuring out life after retirement. But they are not doing as well as they would like.
If they had it all to do over again, they would have thought less about what they would do and more about what life could be.
One of the highlights at Thanksgiving in my family was the breaking of the turkey wishbone. My mother hid the wishbone in the gravy and dumplings. Whoever got the wishbone selected his or her partner in this wishing tradition.
Everyone, adults and children, – this large gathering of kinfolk – wanted that wishbone.
Each person pulls on the wishbone while making a wish. The one who gets the larger piece will get his or her wish.
At the conclusion of the meal, the competitive and often body twisting event began. Shouts of encouragement! Coaching from the sidelines! It’s hard to imagine all the fuss over a small turkey bone.
But it was about wishing – an opportunity to express a desire or hope for something to happen.
We need tools for the transition ahead. Forecasting your future could be one of the most effective tools yet for making your best effort toward living your best last third of life.
I believe there is more joy and happiness to be found in the future than anywhere else.
My fervent wish is that you believe this too.