Don’t just be mindful of the present; it’s also important to be hopeful for the future

CPX Fellow Leisa Aitken on the importance of being hopeful for the future.

I have spent more time than usual with my dog during this pandemic. He is a fifty-kilogram Rhodesian Ridgeback named Archibald. I’ve noticed lately his glorious capacity to enjoy the moment — from the way his ears fly out the window on a car trip, to the way his tail wags and hind quarters sway so much when someone arrives home that it looks like he’s dancing.

We humans have also recently been encouraged to live “in the moment” more. Wellbeing articles, doctors, and psychologists encourage us to practice mindfulness — the Buddhist-inspired, psychologically validated notion of being in the present. It involves stepping outside of the chaos of our own minds and simply observing our thoughts and feelings.

Mindfulness certainly has an important place in the toolkit to help manage the stress of a pandemic. However, in a time like now, without some of our normal life structures, our thoughts may be wandering more “free range” than usual. Is it possible to focus too much on being in the present?

Mindfulness is often used to balance a particular type of future thinking — catastrophising — which happens more when we are stressed. As our thoughtful frontal lobe goes off-line in deference to the more survival-centred part of our brain, we can end up assuming the worst about the future. This, of course, exacerbates our anxiety. Focusing on the moment can be a calm retreat.

But it’s also true that thinking about the future does not have to be catastrophising. It can also engage with our most meaningful hopes. And if we spend too much time living minute-by-minute with no plan for the future, we could end up rudderless and sailing into uncertainty.

We can’t know how to act now until we know what story we are part of.

Social psychologists have found that those who focus most on the present report themselves to be happier than others — but this comes at a price. They do not experience their lives as being as meaningful as those who balance thinking about the past, present, and future. Of course, we all like to be happy, but when we go through a difficult time, making sense of it is a very important aspect of coping. Remembering our past, acting in the present, and hoping for the future creates a narrative arc — a storyline for our lives. It turns out this is important for a life that has a sense of purpose. As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre contends, we can’t know how to act now until we know what story we are part of.

My own PhD research on the psychology of hope has found that hope also involves a story across time. To hope, we must have some sense of what would constitute a meaningful ending to each chapter within our life story. And there are always many possibilities which would be meaningful to us. This is why hopes are more open ended than goals. As Czech philosopher, playwright, former president (and serious overachiever) Václav Havel puts it, “hope is not the conviction that something turns out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out”.

Helping people to envision the broad range of their hopes is part of my clinical practice, but there is more. I often ask my clients, “Do you want to passively read about what happens in this chapter of your life story, or actually write it? Become its author?” Psychologists call this agency. Of course, you may not be able to “write” the hope storylines you want right now. You may have to wait for the right timing. But hope is always — as the third-century Christian theologian Tertullian put it — “patience with the lamp lit”. Many of us are having our patience tested at the moment, waiting for the world to go “back to normal”. But to have hope, the lamp must be lit, the many meaningful paths that could be walked envisioned, glimpsed, and even a tentative toe be poised, ready to be put down.

So, in a pandemic, what type of story promotes hope and wellbeing? Psychologist Dan McAdams argues that we each have a “narrative identity”, an evolving life story linking our past and our hoped-for future with a sense of purpose. According to his research, the narrative identity which led to the best mental health involved the concept of redemption. In other words, periods of adversity in life were “redeemed” by the person choosing to see how they could draw on their strengths, “author” their future, and explore self-reflection. This “redemptive self” became part of their sense of themselves.

This was not just finding a “silver lining” in a difficult time. The suffering was not glossed over; rather, it was integrated into a storyline. Good endings were envisioned, not just as versions of a happy, easy life, but ones which reflected meaning, self-understanding, and growth. An example could be, “It has been financially difficult having reduced work hours in the pandemic. The intensity of family life increased and that is still tough. But it has made me reassess what is important in my relationships and now I am working on being more patient.”

There are psychologically significant costs to redeeming a time of difficulty, but the research indicates that the cost is worth it. For us to focus on growth in our own suffering is difficult. It may cost us the easier path of giving up and just allowing ourselves to dwell for too long in the sadness or angst. It may cost us as we become vulnerable to acknowledging the effect of the ambient anxiety in the world and say that we need help. It may cost us feeling in control of our future and learning, instead, to live with uncertainty. It may cost us giving up clinging to our one preferred ending and accept there are actually many meaningful possibilities in this chapter of our lives.

The pandemic has also revealed our vulnerability as “agents” in our own stories. Now more than ever perhaps, we realise that life is so dependent upon outside forces. Our small stories are always part of a bigger story, with bigger “agents” acting within it — be it a virus, politicians, multinational corporations, or a spiritual struggle between good and evil. Likewise, when we hope, we often need the help of others to bring our hopes about. Fortunately, cracks are appearing in the intense individualism of much of Western society, opening up a more realistic appraisal that we are all part of much bigger emotional, political, and even spiritual systems.

I often ask my clients what worldview or bigger story they see themselves within. It usually takes some deep reflection before they can articulate why it is that they have a sense that “all will be well”, or for others, that we are “heading toward the apocalypse”. It is an interesting exercise to explore our assumptions about the future.

Some self-reflective questions can be helpful. Can you envision multiple possibilities for a good ending for this chapter of your life story? And for humanity’s story? Do you believe it is possible to redeem, and retrieve, the good out of this difficult time? What might you be willing to give up in order to do this? Do you see the world as a place where redemption happens, where suffering can be transformed into something meaningful? In whom or what do you have faith that this will happen?

It turns out that being mindful of our future, may be just as important as being mindful of our present.

Leisa Aitken is a clinical psychologist and Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity. She is pursuing PhD research on the psychology of hope.

This article first appeared in ABC Religion and Ethics.