Does the future hold the key to happiness?

Old-school psychologists obsess over the past; modern, self-helpy ones focus on the present. But a new school of thought is hanging happiness on the future. The standard knock against old-school approaches to psychology – Freud, Jung et al – is they’re obsessed with the past. Visit some crusty psychoanalyst and you’re sure to waste years picking through your childhood, concluding – surprise! – that your parents messed you up. (A Freudian slip is where you say one thing but mean your mother.) Modern, self-helpy psychology starts from the tempting premise that you can skip all that: just change your present-day thoughts and happiness will follow! But now Martin Seligman, the father of “positive psychology”, has gone further. The past and present are both distractions, he argues in a book and New York Times essay; the key to happiness lies in humans’ unique ability to contemplate the future. “For the past century, most researchers have assumed we’re prisoners of the past and the present,” he writes. But we’re not. For example, depression results not mainly from “past traumas and present stresses, but because of skewed visions of what lies ahead”. Indeed, “the main purpose of emotions is to guide future behaviour”. He even proposes a new discipline, “prospective psychology”, to tackle this paradigm-shifting truth. I suspect other psychologists might be surprised to learn they’ve been neglecting the future. After all, there’d be no point getting therapy, reading a self-help book or taking an antidepressant if it couldn’t change your future. Even Freud saw himself as freeing patients from neurosis so they could live future lives of “ordinary unhappiness”, in his splendidly bleak phrase. (Jung was even more future-focused: “I am not what has happened to me,” he wrote, “I am what I choose to become.”) But the problem, for Seligman, is that all these versions of psychology see humans at the mercy of “inner drives”, which determine our trajectories, unless we can somehow silence them. In reality, he argues, we don’t spend our lives acting out childhood patterns. Instead, our actions stem from how we conceive of the future. The title of a paper he co-authored expresses the distinction: “Navigating into the future or driven by the past?” Excerpt from The Guardian, read the full article here.

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