Wish for a Better Future

wishing-well

We make wishes all the time: at 11:11, when we blow out our birthday candles, when we find a fallen eyelash, when we throw a coin into a well. It is part of human nature. Wishes can be wonderfully optimistic, but they can also be reflections of disappointment or regret about the past rather than optimism about the future. They are wishes such as “If only I had known…” or “If only I had or had not…” or “I wish I could have done things differently”. These are wishes that keep us anchored to unpleasant experiences, rather than inspire a future propelled by what our experiences have taught us. In other words, when we wish that we could have done things differently, our focus is on what we have already done rather than on what we will do going forward.

We’ve all said some variation of “if only”. For example:

(1) “If only I had known how angry she would get, I would not have mentioned ____ today. I would have waited until she was in a better mood.”

(2) “If only I had known he was cheating on me, I would have broken up with him months ago.”

(3) “If only I had not gone to bed so late, I would have been able to do better on the test/job I was assigned.”

(4) “If only I had been more attentive, she would still be dating me.”

(5) “If only I had known that the company was going to go out of business I would have started looking for work months ago.”

(6) “If I had known that today was the last time I would see him, I would have said I loved him when he left for work. I wish that had been the last thing I said.”

In these “if only” scenarios, we tend to use information that was not available at the time we made our decision. This newly available information suddenly becomes a basis for evaluating the merits of our past decision.

However, we cannot lose sight of the fact that our decisions in the moment are based on how one sees the situation at that time. Why avoid mentioning something if you think the person is in a good mood? If you trust someone, why break up with him/her? If you think the next day will be routine, what is the harm in staying up late? If you think you are making someone happy, why change the way you treat them? If you are happy in your job and have no information on the financial position of the company, why change jobs? Did the person know you love them, even though the words were not spoken that morning?

It is often hard to remember the factors that influenced our decision at the time and the consequences of our decisions are sometimes so upsetting to us that we search for how we could have avoided them. It is as if the newly available information is so compelling that it “demands” that we use it as a way of evaluating the merits of our past actions. It is almost as if we get stuck in the wish that things could have been different and in searching for a way to change the past, we wind up turning our back on our future.

I have talked to so many people who ask over and over why they have done something. Why was I so quiet/talkative/sensitive/insensitive/pushy/obedient? These statements are really all variations of “I wish I were different” and the ultimate quest is to find the reason for one’s behavior, the one thing that could have changed it all. While it is important to reflect upon our past actions and learn from those actions, wishing we could change the past does little to foster that learning.

When the statements we make move from the past (“I wish I were”) to the future (“I want to be”), the potential for learning from the past is increased and the potential for change in the future is enhanced.

It seems to me that in order to truly learn from the past, and move on from it, we need to focus on the evidence we collected at the time. Asking ourselves why we behaved a certain way (rather than wishing we had behaved differently) allows us to carefully examine that evidence and determine what we may have overemphasized and what we may have overlooked. Most of the time, we seek confirming evidence, that is, evidence that supports our hypothesis. If we love someone, we look for evidence of their goodness; if we dislike someone, we look for evidence of their meanness. In doing so, we emphasize the evidence that supports or confirms our view. This is a valuable and important part of decision-making and evidence collection. However, if we overemphasize the confirming evidence, we may fail to consider evidence that disconfirms our view. A parent may say, for example, “My kids are great!”. They then seek and find confirming evidence (good grades, politeness) but overlook disconfirming evidence (they are in their room studying and cutting themselves because they are depressed or anxious).

The collection of confirming and disconfirming evidence is important to effective decision-making but to truly learn from the past, the other question we must ask ourselves is “How do I want to behave next time?” This clearly shifts the focus from the past –which we cannot change – to the future, where we can change how we behave. Wishing we could have been more attentive will not bring back the person we were dating; however, being more attentive to those who are in our lives or who will come into our lives can enrich our relationships going forward. Saying, “If only I had known he was cheating on me, I would have broken up with him months ago” does not help one move forward; it keeps one focused on the pain of the past and the uncertainty of the future. This particular statement also points to the inherent irrationality of using today’s information for yesterday’s decision. That is, at the moment, the relationship was good so there was no reason to break up. If one had had the information, then – and only then – does breaking up begin to make sense. Again, reviewing the confirming and disconfirming evidence one used as a basis for trust is useful; focusing our energy on wishing we had done things differently does little to help one learn from the past and does even less to help one move toward a brighter future.

My wish for you is that you make your wishes dreams that can come true, and not lists of past regrets that cannot be changed.

“Do you know why a car’s windshield is so large and the rear view mirror is so small? Because our past is not as important as our future. So, look ahead and move on.” – Unknown

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29 thoughts on “Wish for a Better Future

  1. Oh Dear Diane, I keep loving your posts!
    This post have a great content. I have experienced several things related to those included in the post.

    One of things that most apply to me and made me laugh was when you said “If you think the next day will be routine, what is the harm in staying up late?” I have to wake up around 5:20 or 5:30am to go to work, but I stay up late just because of not investing my time wisely. Today, I just spoke with my sister and I told her that I was sad because yesterday I had time to do my homework, but I did nothing, so she told me that the best that I could do was not to do the same today. After I finished working today I wanted to go to a store “just to see clothes” but then I thought about it and decided not to go because it would be the same, staying up late doing homework and wake up early. I think that we have to apply those advices that you wrote in this wonderful post. As you said,
    “Focusing our energy on wishing we had done things differently does little to help one learn from the past and does even less to help one move toward a brighter future.” I agree with and I will try to start using such advices. I SHOULD use them, right? Of course!
    Thanks for your dedication and for investing your time writing such great posts for your students and for anyone. ???

    1. I personal do enjoy every moment of your post on real matters. I only want to comment about how to learn from your past. The past is our biggest teacher in life. Because if you get the opportunity to look back, you can truly use the past experiences and memories to help you to uncover what you have learned. Either is a mistake you made or a decision you took which didn’t help you. The major problem for most peoples is that, they can’t accept their past and let go of things. And it keeps on hurting them from time to time because they are not ready to accept their past and learn new things. You can’t change what happened but you can change how you let these events affect you.Either you played an actively or passively role of your past, I believe you have learned something from it. And what you have learned is going, you can use that information or experience towards creating your confident new story. The one you are going to start living or using today. Hope you enjoy my comment.

  2. This article has reminded me of the butterfly effect. The butterfly effect is the theory of a single event small or big, can change the course of someones life creating alternative world. It leave me in shock of the idea of people wishing to change the direction of their lives just to know what will change from their current life. I will be amazed to know how the course of my life will change, if I had a little brother or sister. Sometimes, being an only child gets lonely and it would be nice to have someone to play video games with or exercise at the local gym. In addition, I found many valuable lesson on reading this article, but the most important lesson was not to feed of on the pain and regrets that occurred in the past. Instead, move only forward and do not let these elements hover over someone. Furthermore, I was surprised when the author use the windshields of a car to symbolism the past and future. The rear windows represent the past while the front windshields represent the future.

  3. Wow. I thought that this post was very interesting because you’re exploring topics that I’ve never really taken the time to think about. Whenever I wish, I always wish for positive things. I have never even thought about the fact that there are plenty of people in this world that wish negatively, and often times the people who wish negatively make wishes about the past. This ultimately leads them to live in the past, which can lead to many negative, and detrimental emotional disorders. One of the things we discussed in class today, was something that you taught/told us that was about your life, and it was in fact a good life lesson too. You said that you’ve been embarrassed in your lifetime, scared, angry, and depressed, but the only thing that matters is that you’re still here today, and everyday that you’ve felt these negative emotions, you’ve ultimately overcome each and every one of them. Essentially, you are absolutely right about how you cannot turn your back on the future, ever. In these negative situations, if you can take the time to think about all the great things you’ve experienced and have in your life, just take deep breaths, and learn to laugh more, everything will work out in the end.

  4. what an interesting post, and I am with you professor, somethings we just have to let things go. I always tell my friends, “don’t let a bad condition or your ex wears you down. Every bad situations are a learning process in life. Never do we have to think, an ex is a mistake. God does not bring people into our lives if they were not worth it at that very moment.

  5. oh boy! I love you professor Diane, you’re really making a great impact in pupils life especially your students. This post is so me but, after reading this powerful post, I am going to look past my failures in life and change my approach towards life. Thanks for doing this.

  6. I enjoyed reading this blog just because it has to deal with a personal issue that I am dealing with right now. This blog was a definite must read for me! Keep it up Dr. Urban!

  7. Wow I never thought about it that way. Every time I walk by a fountain I always make a wish and toss a coin. I would agree that some are my regrets of thing I haven’t accomplished and other are for my children to be healthy and happy and fruitful life.
    Everything we do has a purpose, some are habitual and others are for something better. Your right if we are going to make a wish we should be thing positive and looking towards the future so we have something to aspire too.

  8. Valuable insight-I tend not to look at situations from the point of moving forward but rather stuck in regrets in the past. Working on this- Thanks for shining the light and showing me the proper perspective to move forward.

  9. The insight from this to me is hits home directly, I tend to be one who says the “If I have” or “I wish”. As I read through this blog I was thinking of certain things that I have done or had happen to me in my own life. Thinking the way that you have described here has helped me put some of those regrets or expectations in the past. Looking at my life now I have so many amazing things to look forward to in the future that I cant take any more time to look back at the things that I have done in my past. Greatly appreciate this helpful insight like the many above, this change perspective has been very helpful.

  10. Dr. Urban,
    I really do love reading your blogs and they always seem to come at the right times. I constantly fight with myself regarding this topic. There are so many things that I wish I could have done differently in my life because I feel that, had I done them, my life would be much better. However, I spend so much time wishing I had “stuck to that diet – If I had I would be so much thinner right now” or “Had I done things differently in that relationship, I could have been married with children by now” that I do lose sight of the present. By doing this I am allowing my past to affect my future.
    Reading this only affirms that I need to focus on the present, so that I can take control of my future. Constantly harping on the past is unhealthy and counterproductive. You’re right; it does not help one move forward and it only keeps us focused on the past. This can lead to unnecessary depression which will cause a person to continue to go down the same path they took in the past. For example, the depression of knowing that you could have been thinner had you stuck to that diet may cause you to continue to overeat. This solves nothing and only perpetuates the cycle. I will try to work on this and think of your wise words when I begin to regress.

  11. This was a great post, it makes me think of all the times I have said “I wish I did/didn’t, or I should have/have not. Luckily when I look at these times, most are from long ago when I was younger. I find myself wishing less and doing more.

    Seems to me the leading factor in not wishing as much as I used too is because I have learned from my past mistakes or missed opportunities. I think when I was younger the future was hazy and I didn’t know the best way to get to where I wanted to be. Now, older and more experienced there is a clearer vision in my mind of where I’m going and I think I know how to get there.

  12. Very interesting, as I read my way through this I found myself nodding and recollecting on times I have done some of the exact things you referenced. I can’t express how enlightening this is to me, I have spent years secretly wishing and aiming for goals. The odd part is that I never realized on my own the negative impact it was having on me. Throughout the years I have reflected on where I wanted to be our what I thought I would be doing and I find myself negatively being hard on myself for not reaching those goals or places. After reading this and processing it I realize adjustments I can make to how I look at this. Moving forward I have to worry less about where or how I thought I would be living and focus on where I am and what is next for me. Just one more thing that I can turn from a negative into a positive on this journey we call life. Thank you for your insight and sharing such an important point in healthy living.

  13. The past many of the times shapes the future which you touch on slightly saying, “if only i knew this or that”. Its really nice reading these posts because many times one can relate, how many times i have said something like that is un countable. I wish i did not spend so much money, or If only i did not go out this weekend. But concentrating on the past makes the present and the future difficult. The past is something we currently can not change so looking back on it will bring no happiness ( unless your looking back to a happy memory ). The past many of times does not have to be forgotten but sometimes it should not be looked back on to remember the unhappy things.
    This can help me currently because a lot of the times i stress about work even when i home. Sometimes i think ” it should not have taking so long to complete this job”, or why did i not just stay a few hours later to complete that”. Its the little things the make the present time bad. I know i can learn from them like you said above “take the evidence i learned to come to the conclusion of i should have done something different”. So now in the future i hopefully never do it again and i never have to say “if only”

  14. I felt this post directly applied to my life, and I’m sure many people would also feel this way after reading it. I am a very optimistic individual. I tend to look for and see the best in others and in myself. My friends have warned me that I’m too optimistic, and I typically dismiss it and just assume that I tend to see the best in situations and people. This post pointed a finger at how important it is to also weigh the negatives, and that they cannot be simply overlooked or ignored. While I will continue to be my positive self, I will also pay more attention to negative aspects and think about how they can be made better.

  15. This hit the nail on the head. I have to agree with all that was mention in your blog post. I find myself doing the same thing every day, always wishing for a second chance and those “what if’s”. We have to remember the reasons for why we make those decisions in the first place although, like you mentioned, it can be hard. We make those decisions because of how we felt in that particular moment. Being positive can be hard but we have to remember to stop looking back and wishing we had done things different.

  16. I related so much to this post. I am a dreamer, to a fault. I always dream about things that have yet to happen or think of past situations in which I change my decisions for a better outcome. I myself am impairing any future positivity because I am still lamenting on things that are now in my rear view mirror. I feel that many things that we are all guilty of have been mentioned in this blog. It’s so therapeutic to read that sometimes we are all trying to figure things out together.

  17. I absolutely love all of these. I relate so much to this post, I’m always day dreaming and sometimes they are happy daydreams sometimes they are ones about how stressed I am and how afraid I am to graduate because I won’t get the teaching job I want. I’m always wishing for a second chance on life to not meet some of the people I met and to get better grades. At the same time though I’m happy with who I am now and the person I have become.

  18. I really like this post, when you said “My wish for you is that you make your wishes dreams that can come true, and not lists of past regrets that cannot be changed.” Its important to live life with no regrets and to live life to the fullest, Don’t be one of those people who would like to do something but didn’t have the courage to do it

  19. like always, great post professor. i can relate to it. especially about staying up late and going to school the following day tired, peculiarly that i work overnights lol. sometimes we do have to sacrifice some things in order to succeed. i have learned that failures are lessons, and the best that we can do is to never give up.

  20. I relate to this post on an emotional level because I just quit my job 2 weeks ago and my boss seemed fine with it at first then all of a sudden 4 days later started spreading rumors about me.. Rumors my co workers and best friend believed. I lost my best friend that day and all I could think was if only I didn’t put in my two weeks, maybe she would still be my friend.. I think those thoughts a lot and wish at 11:11 knowing it’s not real and my wish wont come true but 3 days later I got the best job ever and now I think to myself who cares what others think of me all that matters is what I think of myself.

  21. This comment that came in via email from a student was worth sharing – “Having red “Wish for a Better Future”, I agree that wishes, no matter if they are ambitious or humble, realistic or improbable, noble or malicious, could be generally divided in two categories: connected with the past, or directed to the future. Even grammatically the expression” I wish” could be used in two different senses: “I wish I had done something in a different way” or “I wish something good will happen in the future”. Each of us has made mistakes in his/her life and we are tempted to find excuses or even dream about having the past changed. This is doing us no good. So far no method has been invented to reverse time and be able to interfere with past event. At every moment of our lives, our next move is going to be in the time ahead of us so wishes should be done only for the future. However how can we make the right wish without connecting it to our past? Unsuccessful efforts and disappointments from past experience help us shaping up the wishes for the days and years to come. The only advantage of the past is the chance to learn from it so in our strivings for the future we could avoid some mistakes and increase the chances of our wishes to come true. So don’t waste time to say “If I knew…” or “If only I had the opportunity…”, but rephrase it to: “Now I know and if I have a second chance, which I hope, this time I will make it happen’”

  22. “Do you know why a car’s windshield is so large and the rear view mirror is so small? Because our past is not as important as our future. So, look ahead and move on.” – Unknown

    After reading this post and the quote at the end, I was greatly impacted. We, being human, are never and will never be absolutely perfect. We do things or not do things in our lives that we later may regret. But, we must evaluate the situation, reflect upon it and then, as hard as it may be, move on. I can list dozens of “wishes” and “what ifs” that I have said throughout my life and realized that I cannot hold on these wishful thoughts. It is essential and beneficial for the well-being of our lives that we learn from our past and take it with us to improve our future.

    For example, like myself, as I am sure many others out there have “wishes” or “what ifs” that go hand and hand with relationships with a boyfriend or girlfriend. I have had a few boyfriends throughout my life and through every relationship, I have learned and gotten a better and stronger understanding of the person I am and want to be. I have been a liar, a cheater, a supporter, a nagger, a listener, and a doormat (in that order). But, I take away a lesson from each relationship and situation that gives me the opportunity to have healthier ones in the future.

    It is useless to weigh ourselves down with regrets, “wishes”, or “ifs” because in life there will be many; it is what it means to be human. Instead, we need to learn from them and give ourselves the ability to live for the future and not in the past.

  23. This is a very interesting post. We, as humans, are pleasure/comforting seeking, mostly for the self. So, it isn’t entirely surprising when we spend every moment of the day remember and regretting our actions that failed to satisfy us. As a result of these actions, we are ,seemingly, forever enveloped in those moments and we lose track of time and opportunities could possible help us to “cleanse” and “move on”. The past, however, is a beautiful instrument of time because it is our guide and our teacher for the lessons the future holds.
    It is a wonderful thing, Professor, to include a “way” for us to learn from the past that will enable us to find “peace” in the tests and lessons of the future. Thank you for your piece, it is very relatable.

  24. Reading this article helped me realize that I shouldn’t dwell on my mistakes. For example I can relate to this when I am running a track race and I don’t come in the place I wanted to come in. I would always look back at how I ran the race and think about the negative things that happened in the race. Either if I wish I ran faster or had longer strides but what really would get to me was the height difference. Sometimes I would race someone that is taller than me and I would wish I was taller in order to beat the person. But my coach finally was able to convince me it wasn’t about height it was about how fast you are. My coach was correct because I realized that I started to beat people twice my height. It took while to convince me that height was not the main factor of winning your race. But I finally overcame that and started to believe in myself .

  25. I love this idea. I actually have already implemented it in my wishes and have been doing so for quite some time. I also take it one step further. Whenever I wish for something, I wish for something that is realistic that I can make happen in the future, and EVERY time I make a wish until I have made it happen, that wish goes to that same thing. I believe this gives me subconscious motivation when I am not thinking about whatever it is because I am constantly reminding myself when I do think about it that it is something I want.

    I believe this is very important because I have (as I’m sure everyone has at one point or another) been that person wishing I could have done things differently. I know what it’s like to wish you didn’t make that mistake or another and spend hours just thinking about what you could have done differently. But hindsight is 20/20 for a reason, and it’s exactly what you said, we know afterwards what we could have done because we can see the extra piece of the puzzle that we didn’t have at the time of the mistake or whatever happened that we wish didn’t.

    So I wholeheartedly support this idea. Wish for a better future. Don’t forget the past, because we learn from our pasts, but do allow yourself to move on and look forward. Everything we do in life can be made better by putting our effort and our wishes into our future instead of our past. Life is too short to spend looking over your shoulder at every mistake, and a brighter future is only possible if you make the effort!

  26. I thought this wonderful comment from a student of mine needed to be shared:) “I took an interest in the article Wish for a Better Future simply for the fact I always wish for a better future now a day. I don’t relate to the people who say, “I wish I did _____ different”, because the experiences we go threw in life are based off the decisions we make at that time. So, I can see that my perspective now may say “hey that was dumb”, but I can also understand I did what made me happy back then, so I wouldn’t dare think about changing something that must have made me happy for a while even if it had consequences later. That’s why now I just wish to recover from the stupidity of my past and learn from it. I think understanding that you can’t change the past is a great way to realize you should focus on changing the future, because that is possible. Also I agree with you saying if we focus to much on the past or what could’ve been, we lose focus on the future and bettering our self’s”

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