Forming Optimistic “Memories of the Future”

A new study reported in Scientific American suggests that active imagining of happy future scenarios creates more lasting memories than imagining gloomy futures.

In the Harvard research study, participants were guided to imagine a wide array of possible future scenarios tailored to their own circumstances, and then tested over intervals to determine how long memories of those imagined futures persisted.

Researchers discovered that short-term retention of happy and unhappy scenarios was identical. One day later, however, the details of negative simulations were much more difficult to recall than the details of positive or neutral simulations.

“These findings are consistent with what is known about negative memories for actual past events, which also tend to fade more rapidly than positive ones. Szpu­nar and his colleagues hypothesize that the emotion associated with a future simulation is the glue that binds together the details of the scenario in memory. As the negative emotion dissipates, so, too, does the integrity of the remembered future. So the negative versions of the future fade away with time, and the positive versions endure—leaving, on balance, an overly rosy vision of what’s to come. But that may not be a bad thing. People who suffer from depression and other mood disorders tend to not only ruminate on negative events from the past but also spin out gloomy scenarios for the future.”

Lawyers work with people in conflict who often live with situational depression. We are very familiar with the tendency of such clients to ruminate about gloomy future prospects. This study provides another strand of evidence for the importance of divorce coaching by mental health professionals trained in narrative conflict resolution modalities. Coaches help clients imagine positive futures during periods of unwanted, sometimes chaotic conflict-related change. The conclusions of this study suggest that working with coaches on restorying may help clients to create lasting positive “memories” that have more staying power than the anxious and fear-ridden scenarios produced during depressed rumination.

Another reason why lawyers working with clients to resolve personal conflicts can benefit from team service delivery that includes skilled ally-coaches.