This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company
Teddy Johnson has a clear fantasy for what he’s going to do the day the pandemic is “over” — whatever that day might look like, and whenever it may be.
He’s banking on the day being sunny, perhaps the temperature of early summer. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” by Whitney Houston will be playing everywhere — on the streets of New York City, where he lives; on the subway; and definitely in the club where Johnson will gather with all his friends. He will wear a cropped white tank top with speckles of paint all over it with his favorite pair of tight bell-bottoms and stunner sunglasses.
“I can’t wait to dance with my friends,” Johnson, 28, said over the phone from his apartment in Manhattan. It won’t erase the pain of last year, which was compounded for Johnson by the loss of his job, but the dance floor fantasy is soothing — something to look forward to.
“Dancing is as important to me as water,” he said. “Thinking about getting on a dance floor with the people I love is getting me through this stay-at-home life.”
Johnson’s fantasy may seem premature — most of us won’t be rushing back to a crowded dance floor, no matter how much we miss it — but experts say fantasizing, forward thinking and using one’s imagination are powerful tools for getting people through difficult times.
With the winter’s end nowhere in sight, with coronavirus cases and deaths still high (and a new variant at large that’s more transmissible), and with the Capitol breached and American democracy seemingly hanging in the balance, people have a need to look ahead to the parties they’ll host, the hugs they’ll give and receive, the conversations they’ll have, and the trips they’ll take once it’s safe.
“The important thing about imagination is that it gives you optimism,” said Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Positive Psychology Center there.
His work is dedicated to studying human agency, which is predicated on efficacy, optimism and imagination. (When Seligman was president of the American Psychological Association in 1998, he pushed for moving away “from focusing on what’s wrong to what makes life worth living.”)
The hours spent fantasizing and daydreaming about future plans are valuable, Seligman said. They allow people to escape routine and cultivate hope and resilience. Imagination also helps people live a “good life,” which Seligman has found is greatly influenced by positive thinking, emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishments — or what he calls PERMA.
“Imagining the future — we call this skill prospection — and prospection is subserved by a set of brain circuits that juxtapose time and space and get you imagining things well and beyond the here and now,” Seligman said. “The essence of resilience about the future is: How good a prospector are you?”
And that’s the case regardless of whether one’s imaginings of the future are over the top and unbelievable, or seemingly mundane.