Some 3500 years ago the Veda used to say “you become what you see”. Intuitively we have always known, or at least felt, that envisaging our objectives somehow makes it easier to reach them. In the Bible Jesus is said to have said “If you desire something, believe that you already have it and you will have it”. Whether good or bad for us, we beget what we believe in.
The common act of planning, after all, is a simple rendition of the act of envisaging, and we all know how fruitful it is to plan when it comes to achieving objectives. But how does it work? Can we find a neuro-scientifically compatible explanation, at least a plausible explanation since proof is probably out of the question?
While reflecting about this it occurred to me that an explanation can be formulated in terms of our narrative perception circuit. We know that, by default, human beings perceive reality through a system that appreciates it in the light of past experiences, beliefs, established knowledge and competences, traumas, preferences and aversions, etc.
Acting similarly to camera lenses and filters, these components of our past self make us focus on certain parts of the reality while ignoring other parts and then interpret the part we focus on, essentially filtering, coloring and distorting it, to produce a very individual and unique perception in the form of a narrative about what we perceive. Ultimately our perception of reality is a story we tell ourselves about it and, like all stories, it is neither complete nor exact. The quality of the story thus determines the experience in terms of emotion, cognition and, ultimately, reaction. We could say that the present is determined by the past. This is the natural process.
When we look at expectations we might be looking at a reversal of this process, whereby cause becomes effect and vice-versa.
I believe that the act of formulating expectation, the more conscious and detailed the better, is, essentially, like telling oneself a story about the future. It is somewhat like experiencing the future before it happens, ante-facto, using our imagination. The present of things future as St. Augustine would call it. This pseudo-experience however has the same power of generating real emotions and, ultimately, shaping our perceptional filters as real experience does. The result is that when the future reality happens, our default system will possess an experiential basis to allow us to focus on the components of that reality that are aligned with what we foresaw and, hopefully, desired. This has the power to alter the basis on which the narrative will be construed when future becomes present reality. In essence, by pre-living reality, we can alter the story we tell ourselves about it when we finally live it. As in a dejà-vu, the present will feel familiar because we will have a “previous experience” of it.
One implication of this is that if we focus on what we have foreseen we would perceive what we believed we would perceive.
How would this altered perception enhance ability to realize our objectives?
Martin Seligman, starting from his discovery of Learned Helplessness, and subsequent research, concluded that optimism is a competence and as such can be learned. Learning in this domain is practicing. One learns to be an optimist by practicing optimistic thinking. This in turn is precisely what we saw above. Optimism is the mental strategy of telling oneself a story about the future that is positive and in line with one’s desires and expectations. Optimism is an empowering competence that enables people to look at their lives in the light of their resources and capabilities to construct success and surpass adversity. It works amazingly well in the latter precisely because of its effect on the narrative. Seligman states that what distinguishes an optimistic individual from a pessimistic one is three specific beliefs related to, respectively, the breadth of the adversity, its perpetuation or temporal extension, and the individual’s identification with its cause.
These three beliefs have the power to significantly alter the narrative about both the present and the future. In short, optimists “know” that adversity happens in spite of them, not in everything and not all the time. Pessimists “know” that adversity happens because of them, always and forever.
Therefore optimism is the competence to tell oneself a constructive story about the future – essentially formulating positive expectations – that predisposes our narrative circuit to perceive the positive characteristics when this future becomes present. But how do we construct these positive characteristics?
Richard Wiseman, (http://www.richardwiseman.com/research/psychologyluck.html) who spent more than twenty years of his life researching luck, concluded that luck itself is a competence. If we exclude – for the sake of simplifying the discussion – random processes such as lotteries and the like, Wiseman affirms that positive events happen to those who believe they will happen.
His point is simple and straightforward. If you believe that positive things happen to you, you will have greater chances to perceive it when they do than if you believe the contrary. And vice-versa. We perceive what we pay attention to, as the famous Gorilla video so clearly demonstrates.
Positive expectations thus enhance one’s capacity to perceive the positive when it comes our way, to see opportunities and to be better positioned to leverage them in our favor.
The positively biased narrative, created by a positive envisaging of the situation, will produce more positive cognitions and emotions and one will feel better and more competent to deal with it. This in turn will most certainly affect the outcome.
Will this always assure that one’s expectations are met? Certainly neither always nor assure, but it will definitely give it more chances.