Dreaming about a positive future seemed to protect against sadness in the short term but promote it over the long term.
Gabriele Oettingen, Rethinking Positive Thinking
Fantasizing about the future. It’s easy. It’s free. It gives us direction. It feels good. What could go wrong?
According to Gabriele Oettingen, daydreaming of an ideal future is far from harmless. It could, in fact, sabotage our lives if we are not careful.
Why? What harm could come from envisioning an ideal future? Look at sports athletes. Doesn’t visualization assist in execution? Wouldn’t you prefer someone with a dream to someone hopelessly trudging through an aimless existence? Come on, Ian. You’re a teacher for goodness sake. Should we kill everyone’s dreams?
I do agree that a few positive fantasies of a better life are better than none at all. If one cannot conceive of a better life for themselves, then how can they implement changes in the right direction? For many people struggling with depression and downtrodden circumstances, this is a problem.
But people who float above the depths of extreme poverty and severe depression often do prove themselves capable of envisioning a better life tomorrow.
In our brains, the prefrontal cortex serves as a prediction machine. Most of the time that entails evaluating the potential consequences of our imminent decisions. Rather than acting on pure impulse and instinct, humans have the ability to project decisions into the future and rationally intuit the probability of various outcomes.
“Should I punch that guy?”
“It might be fun. Maybe I can take his wallet and get some pocket money.”
“You might also get into legal trouble. Also, that guy is bigger than you. He might punch you back much harder.”
“Which scenario seems more likely? Number One or Number Two?”
“I would say Number Two.”
“Well, we don’t want that. Let’s not punch him, then.”
However, when we use our prediction abilities to daydream about our perfect future, it can hamper our ability to plan in the present. Often our dream plans require substantial work over a long period of time. As we work toward our goals, we do not necessarily make perfect linear progress. We will suffer setbacks. We will encounter obstacles.
When we feel down or blue, imagining a better life serves as a salve that soothes us back to our feet and prods us forward. But fantasizing can be addictive. It feels good to imagine a perfect life filled with love, fulfilling work, and financial security beyond our wildest dreams. In fact, fantasizing and real-time experience share some characteristics of brain chemistry.
One such shared chemical is dopamine – the “wanting” neurotransmitter. This happy brain chemical releases during the imminent anticipation of pleasure. It is not associated with pleasure itself, but rather when one anticipates a reward. Therefore, dopamine plays a crucial role in motivation.
Some intermittent positive fantasy can produce a short, beneficial dopamine release. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves what we are working so hard for. Where are we headed? What is the purpose of our efforts?
But if we indulge too often and too much dopamine floods the reward center of our brain, we may get drunk on the positive sensations and forget to strive toward our goals. In other words, if thinking about an ideal future is pleasurable, why put in so much work to actually get there? In many respects, our daydream is just as satisfying as its actual achievement. As the dopamine system goes into overdrive, our motivation to strive towards our goal declines.
As a result, when the daydream ends and our dopamine levels decline, we are left feeling depressed, listless, and disappointed with ourselves. We crash back down to reality only to realize we are no closer to achieving our dream. Moreover, we receive a slap to the face when we realize that dreaming about achievement never carries the same lasting satisfaction as an actual achievement (though many would argue that it is the incremental steps of growth that most satisfies us).
So where do we draw the line? How can we avoid overdoing our positive visualizations? For one, we should recognize that our dreams are neither close at hand nor impossible. The path to our ideal life is strewn with small, achievable daily steps as well as obstacles ready to shut us down. So it pays to have a plan. What can you do today to take one small step closer to your dream? What obstacles may get in your way? How can you pass through or around those obstacles?
When daydreaming gets us down, sometimes the devil is in the details. If we can return to the present moment and consider not just our destination, but the journey ahead, then we can take steps in the right direction. All the while, a steady dopamine trickle will reinforce our authentic progress.