Mental time travel for happiness

A recent experiment has just discovered that time travel can make you happy. Great Scott! I’m not talking about actual time travel, of course, but mental time travel; using your brain to do something that, at the moment, only us humans can do – simulate and predict future events.

Mental Time Travel (MTT) can be done in various ways. One dimension on which it can vary is valence. For example, it could be positively valenced, such as imagining tomorrow’s job interview going well; negatively valenced, such as imagining an argument with a friend; or neutral, such as imagining eating your breakfast.

We do this naturally; the unconscious part of our divided mind likes to wander ahead and hypothesise about what might be waiting for us in the future. But we’re able to get in the driver’s seat of our mental delorean, and choose where we want to go.

The idea of thinking positively about the future is nothing new; it’s a linchpin of the self-help movement, and has become massively popular since that awful book, The Secret, came out. So positive MTT could be seen as one branch of the positive thinking tree, along with other branches like positive reframing, affirmations, optimism, and so on.

back to the future
Great Scott!

A team of psychologists carried out a two-week study to find out what effects positive, negative, and neutral time-travel have on happiness and anxiety. You might be thinking, isn’t this an obvious thing to study? Well, maybe. I mean, you don’t necessarily need a psychology almanac from 2015 to figure out what the results will be, and the researchers did agree that positive MTT and happiness tend to go together.

But the provocative research question was, do the positive thoughts cause the happiness, or does happiness cause positive thoughts? Maybe the link is incidental, not causal – you become happy for whatever reason, then you start thinking positive, and maybe make an incorrect causal assumption. Either way, scientists need to test even obvious things when they are building their models; the truth is that you don’t know until you test it. Besides, how else can scientists get to brag about having a 20 page CV?

Plus, these ‘obvious’ studies sometimes turn out unexpected results…

The Test

Here’s the basic instruction given to participants:

“Please try to imagine, in the most precise way, four positive events that could reasonably happen to you tomorrow. You can imagine all kinds of positive events, from simple everyday pleasures to very important positive events.”

Three groups of people were in the test; the negative and neutral group got the same instructions with the word ‘positive’ replaced as appropriate. What makes MTT different to general positive thinking is the additional instruction to be specific: they were told to imagine the event at a specific time, a specific place, and going into as much detail as possible; sounds, smells, emotions, and so on. So no manifesting mansions or unicorns or anything; just things that will happen tomorrow, happening well (or not).

The researchers measured everyone’s happiness and anxiety levels before and after spending 2 weeks on this exercise.

The Results

Let’s start with happiness. The positive MTT group became significantly happier after two weeks of practising this simple exercise. Not exactly a heavy finding, but it does mean there’s another scientifically supported intervention that people like you can do to become happier, and it’s really simple to do, too. Support for these exercises is really picking up now; here’s another ten, for instance.

Positive MTT making people happier is about what you’d expect. But it’s interesting that negative MTT didn’t decrease happiness. Strangely, the negative and neutral groups both had marginal increases in happiness, but nothing that was statistically significant, so we can safely discount this as a fluke finding.

So the results suggest that positive future imaginings aren’t just a consequence of happiness, but they’re a cause of it. The authors suggest a follow up study to test the difference between positive future MTT, and more general positive thinking (i.e., without pictures).

But what about anxiety? What do you imagine happened to that? Here it gets more interesting. The positive MTT group’s anxiety was unaffected, and so was the negative MTT group. Happiness and anxiety aren’t at opposite ends of the same scale, so it’s not necessarily a surprise that positive MTT had no effect on anxiety. But maybe it is a surprise that negative MTT had no effect either. So if you worry about how much you worry, don’t worry!

The really strange finding is that the neutral group had a significant decrease in anxiety. This had the authors a little stumped, but they suggest it might be due to the structuring nature of neutral MTT. They examined reports of what all participants had imagined, and those in the neutral group tended to think about daily routines. Perhaps mentally preparing and structuring their time ahead in this way served to reduce their stress over upcoming events, sort of organising their mental to do list. But more studies will need to be done to figure this one out.

The practical conclusion is that thinking about 4 of the next day’s events in a detailed and positive way made the participants in that group happier after two weeks’ practice.

Why not give it a try? It might cheer you up a bit.

What’s the matter?

Are you chicken?

Recommended Reading:

Reference (look what they called it! Awesome!):

Quoidbach, J., Wood, A.M., Hansenne, M. (2009). Back to the future: the effect of daily practice of mental time travel into the future on happiness and anxiety. Journal of Positive Psychology. 4(5). 349-355.


  • Warren Davies says:

    P.S. Sorry for the delay between (real) posts!

  • Wow, I can see how MTT would have a cumulative effect over time. By imagining routine positive experiences you essentially create positive self-fulfilling prophecies that are easy to believe in. The more good things happen to you the more you’ll be able to expand your own definition of “routine” Over a period of time, the positive experiences that you might have considered unlikely to happen in the past become much more likely to happen.

    Gonna give this one a try and think about:
    1. A fantastic breakfast
    2. A productive workday
    3. An excellent workout
    4. Reading a good book

    I feel better already.

    • Warren Davies says:

      Hi Kenji,

      Well, I prefer your explanation to quantum mechanics. I suppose you could be making self-fulfilling prophecies with this. That’s probably a question worth testing in itself (Back to the Future 2?).

      But even if thinking about these things doesn’t make them happen, it at least makes you happier.

      Many thanks for leaving a comment,

  • Noah says:

    You cannot achieve happiness if you cannot project it mentaly into the future, I’ve discovered that myself. It’s a pleasure for me to read that my intuition was confirmed by scientists 🙂 thsnks for the article!

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