Okay, so we can't literally predict the future, but how best to cope with an uncertain future while maintaining a sense of optimism?
Approaching a new year can be an intimidating prospect. The division between one year and the next is, of course, an arbitrary marker. Yet it is one we imbue with meaning, as we look back on events of the previous year and look forward, with hope or trepidation, to the year ahead.
One way we cope with this uncertain future is by promising to renew or reinvent ourselves. We set new year's resolutions in a commitment to be a better version of ourselves. Yet at this time of year, we also look back with disappointment at past resolutions unmet, or current dreams unfulfilled.
Hope can seem in short supply. A conversation I had with a friend recently was devoid of optimism when predicting the future. It seemed obvious to both of us the year ahead would be one of crises, viruses, and conflict. But how can we really know what the future holds? Here's some ideas for looking to the future with a pinch of optimism. We can't actually predict the future, but we can at least try to look forward to it.
DO focus on yourself. Not in a 'look at me, I'm the only person that matters' kind of way. Instead, when considering the future, start with imagining your place in it. No matter what is going on in the wider world, what does the next year hold in future for me?
DON'T spiral into pessimism. Easier said than done, right? But some remarkable research suggests that, no matter how pessimistic you are, you can think yourself happier by imagining optimistic scenarios in the future. So go ahead and reflect on the year ahead and what obstacles you might face, but crucially, imagine how you will successfully overcome these obstacles and achieve what you desire.
This is different from making resolutions, which imply firm commitments for the future. Instead, the trick is to imagine optimistic possibilities - possible futures where things go your way - acknowledging that this might not happen exactly how you plan it to.
DO put pen to paper. Get out your notepad and scribble down three or four different ways the year might pan out for you.
DON'T self-censor - get your pessimistic predictions down too. But remember to consider how you will overcome those obstacles too. Optimism isn't wishful thinking - it's defined by psychologists as an 'attitude that good things will happen and that people’s wishes or aims will ultimately be fulfilled.' The key word there is 'ultimately' - the road to future success never did run smooth, and detours and difficulties will undoubtedly be encountered along the way.
And thinking about success, DO be optimistic about the benefits of optimism. A classic study found optimistic swimming teams went on to perform better than pessimistic ones, even after swimmers were given falsely negative times. In other words, optimism not only increases our chance of future success, it also improves our ability to bounce back from setbacks - real or imagined.
There's also a host of apparent health benefits for those who maintain an optimistic outlook, ranging from lower risk of heart disease to lower risk of stroke. While the exact mechanisms for those benefits remain unclear, it stands to reason that, at the very least, optimism isn't going to hurt you.
DO think big picture. Our future isn't only wrapped up in the next few days, weeks, or months. The vast majority of us have many years left to live. If you've had a bad couple of years, see it as a blip on a much broader canvas. When predicting the future, we have to teach ourselves to imagine the unimaginable.
For instance, you may feel stuck on a particular career path that doesn't suit your personal circumstances. Yet while switching careers might seem impossible now, once you've made the switch you'll wonder why it seemed so unfeasible at the time. The pessimist thinks everything is impossible until suddenly it happens, which only confirms their view that the future is unpredictable and as likely to go badly as well. The optimist acknowledges that nothing is impossible, even if some things are highly unlikely.
DO watch out for optimism bias. If you predict an amazing year, full of riches, endless happiness and perfect moments, you might be barking up the wrong tree. Optimism bias is neatly summarised as 'our tendency to overestimate our likelihood of experiencing positive events and underestimate our likelihood of experiencing negative events.' It can lead to poor decision-making if, for example, we decided to splash out on lottery tickets or gambling, convinced that we'll win, only to end up with a bank account in the red and nothing to show for it.
It can also lead to crippling disappointment if, as often happens, our high expectations are not quite met by reality. Embracing the future with optimism is not about expecting things to go well, then. It's about focusing more on how they might go well rather than fixating on the negative possibilities.
After all, the surest prediction we can make about the future is that it will be unpredictable.