“How to Build a Life” is a biweekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
You live in the future. So do I. We all do. It’s human nature. However, there are times—such as during a pandemic—when this nature makes us suffer.
We are “prospective” creatures, according to the psychologists and philosophers Martin Seligman, Peter Railton, Roy Baumeister, and Chandra Sripada in their 2016 book Homo Prospectus. Indeed, as Seligman told me, on average we spend 30 to 50 percent of our self-generated thought—what we think about when we aren’t trying to concentrate—contemplating the distant future. No other creatures do this, with the small exception of some primates who store tools for future use.
Living in the future is one reason meditation and practicing mindfulness are so hard. Meditators speak of the monkey mind: The monkey doesn’t want to sit still; he wants to swing off to the next tree and see what’s up there.
The prospective monkey in our minds wants to see lots of tasty fruit, and have a way to get it; the best way to frustrate him is an empty tree, or one where the fruit is out of his reach. Since we spend so much time living in the future, it makes us happy to feel that the future is full of possibilities for improvement, and that we have some control over making those possibilities into realities. In contrast, a near-perfect cocktail for misery is pessimism and low personal control over our circumstances.