Why living in the future, rather than the past, is key to coping with lockdowns – new research

Returning to the past is not the way to handle lockdowns….

Jane Ogden– Professor of Health Psychology, University of Surrey

Amelia Dennis– PhD Researcher in Psychology, University of Surrey

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a tough year for people across the globe, with billions facing at least one lockdown. And it’s not over – there may be further lockdowns needed in the new year. Luckily, researchers have been busy studying what effect they have – and how best to cope.

Lockdowns are stressful because they create uncertainty, fear and social isolation. Because the present becomes anxious and boring, and the future becomes elusive (when will this end?), many people cope by looking back in time and recalling memories of things that we used to be able to do. Now our new study, due to be published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, has found that this often fails to make us feel better.

It’s not surprising that many look to the past: researchers in positive psychology have previously developed developed a variety of interventions to improve wellbeing that can be incorporated either into therapy or an person’s daily self-care routines. Three such approaches are nostalgia, gratitude and “best possible self”.

Each of these represents a certain time orientation. Nostalgia involves sentimental longing for the past by recalling certain events. By contrast, gratitude is focused on the present, involving thinking about good things that have happened today. The “best possible self” intervention instead involves thinking about your best possible achievements in the future. But which one works best?

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