In the long run, we all can look forward to pretty bleak futures. Whether the final ‘game over’ arrives in the form of a car wreck, a terminal illness, a heart attack or just old age in the end we all meet our end. Yet many of us look forward to happy futures, both on the short and long term. According to new research published in the journal Psychological Science, our ability to remain optimistic despite all the bad things that could and likely will happen to us hinges upon our tendency to assume those calamities will befall others, not ourselves.
In this new study, researchers wanted to investigate whether people’s optimism about the future may be influenced depending upon whether they spent time contemplating depressing potential scenarios. The team asked participants to take online surveys that assessed their past experiences and perceptions of future well-being. Not surprisingly, when people thought about depressing past events, they reported feeling unhappy during those times. The reverse was true for happy past events; they recalled those days as periods of well-being and contentment in their lives.
When participants imagined the future, however, those rules puzzlingly did not hold. People who thought about positive future events felt happy, but people who thought about negative future events still held fast to their optimism. They assumed that those bad things would not wind up occurring, or that things would somehow work out for the better.
Their friends, however, didn’t fall under this happy umbrella of cheery possibility. When the researchers asked their subjects to imagine bad things happening to their friends in the future, the participants conceded that those negative events would indeed impact their friends’ happiness.
More from Smithsonian.com: