The Skill We Need in 2021 Is Mental Time Travel

A psychology researcher explains how to let your future self guide you through a rocky present

Richard Lopez
Forge
Published in
4 min readJan 20, 2021

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Image: Yagi Studio/Getty Images

Humans have always been pretty terrible at predicting our own futures. Again and again, research has shown just how little we grasp about who we’ll be down the road: Our beliefs about what will make us happy often miss the mark. We (incorrectly) cast our future selves in an unrealistic, positive light. We struggle to draw a line from our present actions and decisions to their downstream impacts.

All this would be true even without Covid. But for most of us, living through a pandemic has made the future feel even murkier and difficult to imagine, full of questions big (What’s going to happen to my job?) and small (When will I go back to pants that button?). At the same time, understanding the link between our present and future selves — the consequences of the choices we make and the risks we take — is now more critical than ever. Once-simple decisions, like whether to have a group of friends over, can now carry life-or-death stakes. Connecting with our future selves is what keeps them, and those around us, safe. It’s what gives us a sense of control.

So how can we get better at the sort of mental time travel that this moment demands of us? It’s the type of question I’ve built a career out of studying. In my research on emotional regulation as the director of Bard’s Regulation of Everyday Affect, Craving, and Health (REACH) Lab, I’ve found that one of the most important tools at our disposal is an empirically vetted strategy known as cognitive reappraisal.

There are two flavors of cognitive reappraisal, which involves reevaluating an emotion-eliciting stimulus — a situation, a social interaction, a self-generated thought — in order to alter its emotional impact or change behavior: distancing and simulation. Here’s how to put each of them to work in your own mind.

Give yourself some space (from you)

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Richard Lopez
Forge
Writer for

Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of the REACH Lab (reachlab.bard.edu) at Bard College.