As isolation day approached, Scott Kelly knew he had to prepare himself mentally. He wouldn’t be able to hug his family and friends. He wouldn’t be able to go outside without protective gear. He’d have a hard time sleeping, because he’d be going to bed in his office and waking up in that same office – on the International Space Station.
As an astronaut, Mr Kelly had been to space three times before. This time, though, he would be setting an American record by spending a full year in space. The hardest part was the uncertainty: He wasn’t sure exactly when his mission would end, and he didn’t know exactly how he’d get through it.
When the future is uncertain, under normal circumstances, the standard advice is to focus on the present. Live in the moment. Seize the day! But in the new abnormal, the day can get pretty boring. In isolation, time becomes meaningless. Every day starts to feel like Groundhog Day.
For Mr Kelly, on that fourth mission to outer space, Groundhog Day lasted 340 days. Since he’s worked remotely more than almost anyone in history, I couldn’t think of a better source of wisdom on coping with it. When I interviewed him for my TED podcast, WorkLife, I realised that a key to Mr Kelly’s resilience was mastering the art of time travel.
Right now, it would be nice to be able to fire up a time machine or even climb into a wormhole to the day this pandemic ends. Mr Kelly didn’t have the luxury of a DeLorean car from Back To The Future or a tesseract from A Wrinkle In Time, so he did the next best thing. He turned to mental time travel.
In psychology, mental time travel is a distinctively human skill. It involves rewinding to remember the past and fast-forwarding to envision the future. With practice, we can use it to find meaning in monotony, experience moments of happiness in the midst of sadness and make time feel like its passing faster or slower.
The first place where Mr Kelly travelled mentally was the future. Long before he climbed into the rocket ship to leave Earth, he imagined how he wanted his mission to end. I thought he’d be focusing on what he wanted to achieve, but he was envisioning how he wanted to feel. “My goal was to get to the end of this with the same enthusiasm and ability and energy as I had in the beginning,” he said.
This is something we can all do during the pandemic: Imagine how we want to feel on the day it’s over. Psychologists find that looking to the future shifts our attention from the mundane “how” of our days to the meaningful “why.” Having an emotional target to aim for can give us a purpose and help us manage bouts of anxiety and frustration.
How we go about imagining the future matters. After Britain voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, British government officials felt tremendous uncertainty about where the country was headed. To help them develop a clearer vision of the road ahead, my colleagues, Andrew Carton and Brian Lucas, ran an experiment. They randomly assigned government officials to write visions of a post-Brexit Britain that were concrete, specific, achievable or meaningful.
None of those instructions worked. Government officials struggled to form and articulate what the future might look like. But when they were randomly assigned to imagine taking a time machine to the future, they wrote much more vividly.
This exercise was tailor-made for family dinners: Let’s imagine strapping ourselves into a time machine and travelling ahead to a day when a cure or vaccine for the coronavirus is widely available. What will our first week of freedom look like?
You might be worried that dreaming about family reunions, beach trips or even sitting down in a restaurant will bring about waves of nostalgia. The Greek roots of nostalgia translate to the pain of being unable to return to the past. Logically, that sounds like a recipe for depression. But psychologically, it actually makes us more cheerful. In experiments, people felt significantly happier and less lonely after they were randomly assigned to reflect on a nostalgic event. Reminiscing reminds us that we’re loved and helps us savour the joys of life.
The past is the second destination for your mental time machine. Along with cherishing pleasant memories, it helps to look back to the painful ones too. Thinking about how things have been worse in the past helps us find gratitude in the present. It also builds confidence that we can weather the current storm. Although we’ve never been through a global pandemic, we have endured adversity before. By recalling how we’ve faced other difficulties, we can learn lessons from our own past resilience.
When the stress of living in space took a toll on Mr Kelly, he thought back to some of his most difficult experiences. On his previous mission, for example, he got a call that his sister-in-law had been shot. Recalling this incident reminded him that things could always be worse. This is a skill he’s been using during the current pandemic, and it’s a third type of mental time travel: Transporting yourself to an alternate present.
Psychologists call it counterfactual thinking – imagining that you’re in a different set of circumstances today. We may be living in Option B, but we can all imagine an even worse Option C. My wife and I have been talking with our kids about what life would be like if we were living during the Spanish influenza, without grocery stores, phones and internet connections or evidence-based medicine.
Mr Kelly has been imagining life back in space. “If given the choice of spending a year in my apartment or a year in space, the apartment wins hands-down, every time,” he told me. In space, he missed the sun, nature and the convenience of life on Earth. “If your toilet breaks and you’re in space, you can’t run outside and use the tree or your neighbour’s toilet.”
Although talking to Mr Kelly has crushed my dreams of an exhilarating life in space, it helped me appreciate our situation on Earth a bit more.
Taking mental trips to the future, to the past and to an alternative present can help build resilience. But it isn’t something we do alone. Mr Kelly’s greatest lesson from his travels is that we find strength together.
“When we’re in space and you look down at planet Earth, and the planet is incredibly beautiful during the daytime, you don’t see political borders. It looks like humanity is all part of one big team,” he explained to me. The virus has shown him that the world is “more interconnected than I really realised” and has made him “absolutely confident that we will get through this, but it’s going to take all of us working together.”
By Adam Grant © 2020 The New York Times