By Denis O'Hora
I am writing this piece two days after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States of America. Following hard upon the United Kingdom’s vote for Brexit, we are living in a time of extreme uncertainty about the world’s future. The world’s largest economy [x] and most powerful army [x] will be controlled to some extent by someone whose behavior during his election campaign was quite unpredictable and sometimes aggressive [x].
The future affects our choices. Obviously, I don’t mean the actual future, but, rather, the future that we think will happen. Some of the greatest challenges we face today require us to choose a future benefit and endure a short-term sacrifice. Global challenges, such as global warming, peaceful cooperation among nations, fairer trade and scientific advancement require short-term investment for long-term gain. In our own lives, our long-term health, wellbeing and financial security depend on short-term sacrifices. In the face of these challenges, we need to think of the future now more than ever. My hope is that by identifying some barriers to thinking about the future, we can begin to overcome these barriers and work towards creating a better future.
The first barrier is uncertainty. When we think about the future, uncertainty is unsettling; it undermines our confidence in choosing long-term outcomes over short-term ones. At this moment, many people are trying to predict what a Trump presidency will mean for the USA and the world. Can we rely upon traditional USA values to drive policy at home and abroad or will the departures from these values signaled by Trump’s rhetoric be realized? This uncertainty is exacerbated by the lingering effects of the 2008 recession, which resulted in a significant loss of confidence in public institutions and the experts that can help us think about the future.
The second barrier is immediate distraction. Choosing the long-term outcome is more difficult in the face of immediate temptation or fear. In much of the world, we are living at a time when instant gratification has never been more widely available. If you want social contact, distraction, information, to lash out, to be turned on, to buy something, you can get it at the touch of a screen. This constant availability of immediate satisfaction makes it more difficult to live towards longer-term goals. Choosing long-term rather than short-term rewards is hard and having to do it every second means we are more likely to give in. The urgent crowds out the important .
The third barrier is excessive worry. A little worry helps us think about the future, but when we worry too much, it gets in the way. If you are reading this, then you probably worry to some degree about the possible future. We worry about the future of the world in the face of climate change, worry about the future of the economy and society in the face of low pension savings, worry about our future health in the face of our lifestyle choices. A little worry helps focus us on the long-term outcomes at risk in our decisions. Too much worry, however, can leave us frozen, unable to conceive of alternatives to the status quo.
The barriers I’ve mentioned are not the only barriers to thinking about the future and they may not be the most important. Nevertheless, there are some small steps we can take to address these barriers. To combat uncertainty, it helps to take some time to consider the limits of our uncertainty . We are never completely uncertain as to what will happen next just as we are never fully certain what will happen. To overcome immediate distraction, we need to curtail our access to it. We need to switch off our phones, our email and allow ourselves readapt to the slower pace of reality. What is important is creating time and space to think about the future. To deal with worry, we must acknowledge it and not run from it. When we practice staying with our worries and postponing our panicked responses, we can begin to translate those worries into effective future actions.
We will create the future together, whether we do so actively with our eyes open or by accident by opting out. The future deserves our consideration.