We Can Always See Farther Than We Can Be [45]

Dr. Keith WittNeurobiology

iStock_000009447353XSmallBecky and I live on a street that runs near the top of small ridge right behind the Santa Barbara Mission. Since we moved here we’ve probably walked to the end of the street and back ten thousand times—often together—talking about everything imaginable. On a recent morning walk, we were discussing how the future always exists in imagination. Thinking how important this is in psychotherapy, I said, “How we hold the present and future together determines how happy we are, because we can always see farther than we can be.”

Becky looked curious. “What do you mean?”

I was looking down at the city framed by the Channel Islands, considering what a big deal it is to always see farther than we can be. “No matter how good I feel right now, I can imagine myself feeling better. No matter what I accomplish, I can imagine more accomplishments. We can never be as good, beautiful, successful, or fulfilled as we can imagine. People handle this capacity differently. Are you grateful and fine with the flow of life from this moment into the future, or do you live in the frustration of never creating the perfection you imagine? A more satisfied life or a more frustrated life can both come just by how you hold, ‘I can always see farther than I can be.’”

Becky’s face lit up—she loves insights like this. “You should write a blog about that!”

Here it is:

Being human gives us incredible powers. Starting at two, we wake up to “I’m a person who exists!” Developmentalists call “I know I exist” theory of mind. It means we consciously exist in the past, present, and future, imagine endless possibilities, and can consider “I,” “you,” “we,” “mine,” and “should.” We know of no other beings in the universe doing this—nothing on earth even comes close.

Maybe more amazing than “I am a person who exists!” is our endless curiosity. Soon after learning how to talk, two-year-olds start asking “why,” and never stop asking.

We are also always biological beings constantly pressured by our drives. Our genes influence us to pursue security, comfort, social contact and stature, sexual gratification, success, and happiness. One way or another, all humans seek satisfaction of these drives through action, imagination, intimacy and creativity.

Embedded in the human experience is the challenging problem of reconciling our constant tendency to project into the future—seeing ourselves better or worse, more or less happy—with our desires to feel excellent, successful, secure, joyful, and good enough now.

We can always imagine ourselves more excellent, successful, secure, fulfilled, recognized, and joyful than we are now. We can always see farther than we can be. How we resolve the “I can see farther than I can be” dilemma largely determines life happiness and satisfaction.

“Life is good now, but I can imagine things better and that helps me grow in a positive direction,” is one of the hallmarks of a more optimistic, happy person (it also characterizes a growth mindset, Blog #42). “I’m always frustrated that I can’t be better than I am now,” characterizes more pessimistic, unhappy individuals.

Even people at the top of the world have to deal with this. Magic Johnson (more optimistic and happy) was interviewed by NBA legend turned broadcaster Rick Berry (more pessimistic and unhappy) right after winning his first NBA championship in 1980. Rick, a previous scoring champion, notorious as a driven, crabby player—when he played he wore a gold necklace reading “Me First”—seemed uncomfortable with Magic’s overwhelming joy in the moment. Holding up the microphone, Rick struggled with what to say, and then asked (weirdly it seemed to me at the time), “How many more of these [NBA championships] do you want?” Magic—probably feeling Rick’s negative energy as much as the awkward question—seemed momentarily disconcerted, but then flashed his huge smile and laughingly responded, “About twenty.”

This illustrates how being able to imagine a better future is not a problem. Both Rick and Magic were imagining positive futures—more titles for Magic—and such visualizations are central to accomplishing goals and are at the heart of every manifestation system (like the ones mentioned in the cult classic, The Secret). Even more, our desire to grow and expand is what makes us human. Neanderthals were very successful in surviving and thriving in ancient Europe, but seemed to have little of the restless ambition that characterized our homo sapiens ancestors. Neanderthals tended to stop exploring when they reached bodies of water like the Atlantic and Mediterranean—they apparently weren’t driven to find out what was further on. Starting around fifty thousand years ago, humans expanded around the globe, and nothing—bodies of water, mountain ranges, deserts, endless plains, ferocious predators, or frozen ice fields—stopped them. They could always fantasize something cool over the horizon and wanted to go check it out.

Our happiness largely depends on how we manage seeing farther than we can be. Happy people feel grateful for who they currently are and what they currently have, and instinctively use thoughts of future accomplishments, connections, and pleasures to guide confident anticipation for progress to come.

More unhappy people use their ideas about future success and fun to diminish the current moment.

This makes sense given that the neural architecture for imagining the future is pretty much the same as remembering the past (see Blog #20). We’ve all had good experiences and bad experiences as we’ve grown. If you remember your life as mostly painful failures with a hopeless sense, you tend to be more pessimistic and depressed. If you remember triumphs achieved and problems taken on as growth opportunities, you tend to be more optimistic and happy. People with essentially the same life experiences can feel happy and fulfilled or unhappy and dissatisfied just by how they hold their pasts and “remember” their futures.

How do you manage your “I can see farther than I can be” gift? Try paying attention during the next week to whether you’re using your imagination to anticipate victories and joys, or defeats and sorrows, and to how you feel about your present compared with your future.

  • If you imagine negative, pessimistic future events, try imagining possible (even probable, since things usually work out OK) positive, optimistic outcomes—research shows that optimistic explanatory styles are associated with being happier and healthier.
  • If you are imagining victories and joys, does it make you feel more satisfied and grateful for how you are right now, or more frustrated and ashamed of where you are right now? The most productive, happiness-generating attitude is feeling grateful and satisfied now while imagining things even better in the future.
  • If you do imagine things better, but are still left frustrated and bitter about now, try cultivating gratitude for what you have and for your power to guide your life towards more love, joy, and success.

The studies have been done and the results are in:

  • We can always see farther than we can be, and we can’t help living simultaneously in the past, present and future.
  • We do better being grateful for what we have and who we are.
  • We do much better imagining growth and happier lives than imagining becoming less connected, joyful, and successful.

The absolute best way to live is to feel grateful and satisfied in the present moment while imagining more love, joy, and success in the future—to use our gift of seeing farther than we can be to boost love and progress.

Why not?