Anybody who has tried to make a difference in their community knows just how difficult it can be. If we’re working to help people in need, an important goal is to help them in such a way that they’re better able to help themselves down the road. Oftentimes this means teaching someone a new skill that will empower them in the future. That kind of help takes time. Taking care of the environment is a massive endeavor that requires the coordination and efforts of thousands, perhaps millions, or even billions, of people. It, again, takes time to address pressing environmental issues. Rarely are we able to be the social betterment tour de force that we envision ourselves being in our best of dreams. Instead, social change takes time.
People who think about the future and have a focus on how life may unfold down the road may be more prepared to appreciate this important dimension of social betterment. Research on delay of gratification (including the classic marshmallow test) suggests that the ability to delay one’s gratification is linked to positive academic, interpersonal, and mental health outcomes. Similarly, people who more consistently focus on future outcomes are more likely to live a healthier life. Given that improving one’s community also takes time, it seems likely that people who focus more on the future will be more likely to volunteer.
My colleagues Mark Snyder, Patrick Dwyer, and I recently published an article in a special issue on volunteerism and community involvement in the Journal of Social Psychology on how an individual’s focus on the future may be linked to their volunteer actions and experiences (accepted version here). We wanted to examine whether people who focus on the future are more likely to be interested in volunteering, and may be more satisfied with their volunteer experiences. Volunteering is a planful action that aims to improve one’s community over time. People who more consistently focus on future outcomes may be more likely to think about what they want their community to look like in the future, and thus more likely to work towards that future. Likewise, people who think more about the future should be more likely to make plans in general, act on their plans, and specifically appreciate that social change is a slow process that can take time. Thus, people who focus more on the future should be prepared for this a longer social improvement process, making them potentially less likely to experience volunteer burnout.
In a second study, we randomized college students to either write for five minutes about the future in general, or write about their typical day. Individuals who wrote about the future reported stronger intentions to volunteer in the future, compared to those who wrote about their typical day. We also found that writing about the future was particularly effective for people who were infrequent volunteers in the past and who were not people who normally focused on the future. So, getting people who were not already volunteers or who tended not to be concerned about the future to write about the future made them particularly likely to intend to volunteer in the future. Essentially, after writing about the future these individuals thought more like those people who were already thinking frequently about the future.
However, like all social science research, our work suggests additional unanswered questions. For how long does writing about the future lead people to be more likely to want to volunteer? These effects probably don’t last forever. Similarly, could this approach of asking people to write about the future be organically worked into volunteer training and retention efforts? Finally, why specifically did writing about the future have this effect on people? We noticed that people did tend to write about community or global issues when writing about the future. Were they just more likely to think about these big picture issues that they hoped to see addressed in the future? And, can focusing on the future too much sometimes be a bad thing? These questions, and others, are worthy of future exploration.
What do you think?