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Well-being, Future Orientation, Risk, and Self-Esteem

Updated: May 26, 2021

By Andrew Barnett Davis, CEI Intern and Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director

How do your teachers address future orientation with students? Anthony Biglan, a senior scientist at the Oregon Research Institute, and Yvonne Barnes-Holmes, a professor at the National University of Ireland, in introducing a meta-analysis of future-oriented cultural practices, state: ‘our current scientific understanding of how to act in light of the future is limited . . . Societies are not as effective as they could be in anticipating, preparing for, and preventing a wide range of future problems’ (2015, p. 184). They conclude that greater societal efforts are needed to prompt shifts in our behaviors that could positively impact our future well-being.

Future Orientation and How We Behave in the Moment

People try to think about a future that they can make for themselves. While future orientation may be found in children as young as two months (Haith, 1994), with graduation around the corner, adolescence is a crucial time period to think about the future. Choices adolescents make will impact their futures. For example, when students’ grades slip, they may eliminate the potential of being accepted at some colleges and universities. Impulsive actions can greatly harm their chances of getting into college, or may reaffirm a belief that college is not for them. Indeed, a student’s future orientation can affect how he or she behaves in the moment. Knowing this, are there ways educators can encourage students to be more future oriented?

  1. Do we, as educators, have a responsibility to help students consider future alternatives?

  2. Should our students learn about world hunger, population concerns, global warming, endangering species, and alternatives for their futures?

  3. If educators had an increased understanding of students’ future orientation, would that help them make decisions about priorities for curriculum and instruction?

  4. How should future-orientation be integrated into classwork in elementary, middle and high schools?

Future Orientation and Peer Relations as Protective Factors

Future orientation has additional benefits, beyond helping students plan for alternatives for their own future. It is also a protective factor that may impede delinquent behaviors. Indeed, the age-crime curve corresponds with the general developmental curve of identity formation (Wainwright, Nee, & Vrij, 2016).  Newberry and Duncan (2001), in a study of over 400 adolescents, found that students reporting higher levels of delinquent behavior also reported fewer hoped-for selves and more feared selves than other students. The authors concluded that one’s view of one’s own future seems to ‘play a significant role in adolescent delinquent behavior.’ (p. 527). Peer relationships are particularly influential, sometimes leading students into increasingly risky scenarios and decisions (Gardner & Steinberg, 2005). However, relationships with peers can also be a benefit. Students who are more future oriented tend to behave differently in seeking more permanent relationships with others (Horstmanshof & Zimitat, 2007).  Belonging to a group often leads to shared values and norms and an enhanced self-image. Mazibuko and Tlale (2014) argue that, ‘The kind of peer groups that adolescents belong to will determine the nature of future orientation for them” and that:

  1. “If the group’s future orientation is detailed, optimistic and goal directed, then the adolescent will also hold optimistic views about the future.”

  2. “Adolescents who abuse substances will affiliate to a group that has similar habits, either to maintain the habit or to feel that they are not alone. This group of adolescents will more often paint a gloomy picture of the future and will not invest in the future.”

  3. Who you surround yourself with matters for students going through important developmental stages.

Motivation, Optimism, and Pessimism

Some studies show that a stronger future time perspective (FTP), a theory of future orientation, is correlated to higher motivation (Simons, Vansteenkiste, Lens, & Lacante, 2004). However, optimistic thought doesn’t necessarily lead to optimistic behavior (Monroe, Simons, Vansteenkiste, Lens, & Lacante, 2017). Thinking about the future may cause some to become anxious; pessimistic outcome expectancy is linked to anxiety (Gu, Huang, & Luo, 2010).  While the future can be a motivating factor, we are challenged to keep our thoughts about the future positive, and find ways to turn our thoughts into positive actions.

The future is a complicated thing to think about for everyone, but as adolescents prepare for one of the biggest transitions of their lives in going to college or planning for their lives after graduation, it becomes increasingly important for them to consider their futures. One’s sense of one’s own identity and self-efficacy develop alongside future orientation (Beal, 2011). A positive outlook on the future can have many positive effects. For adolescents in particular, a little encouragement from a teacher may go a long way in helping them navigate their way toward a better future.


Beal, S. J. (2011). The development of future orientation: Underpinnings and related constructs (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Biglan, A., & Barnes-Holmes, Y. (2015). Acting in light of the future: How do future-oriented cultural practices evolve and how can we accelerate their evolution? Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 4(3), 184-195. doi:10.1016/j.jcbs.2015.06.002

Caprara, G. V., Alessandri, G., Trommsdorff, G., Heikamp, T., Yamaguchi, S., & Suzuki, F. (2012). Positive orientation across three cultures. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 43(1), 77-83.

Gardner, M., & Steinberg, L. (2005). Peer influence on risk taking, risk preference, and risky decision making in adolescence and adulthood: An experimental study. Developmental Psychology, 41(4), 625-635. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.41.4.625

Gu, R., Huang, Y., & Luo, Y. (2010). Anxiety and feedback negativity. Psychophysiology, 47(5), 961-967. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8986.2010.00997.x

Haith, M. M. (1994). Visual expectations as the first step toward the development of future-oriented processes. In The Development of Future-Oriented Processes (pp. 11-38). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Horstmanshof, L., & Zimitat, C. (2007). Future time orientation predicts academic engagement among first-year university students. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77(3), 703-718. doi:10.1348/000709906×16077.

Mazibuko, M. E., & Tlale, L. D. (2014). Adolescents’ positive future orientation as a remedy for substance abuse: An ecosystemic view. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 5(2), 69-78. doi:10.5901/mjss.2014.v5n2p69

Monroe, Simons, J., Vansteenkiste, M., Lens, W., & Lacante, 2017). Fearing the future? Future-oriented thought produces aversion to risky investments, trust, and immorality. Social Cognition, 35(1), 66-78. doi:10.1521/soco.2017.35.1.66

Newberry, A. L., & Duncan, R. D. (2001). Roles of boredom and life goals in juvenile delinquency. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31(3), 527-541. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2001.tb02054.x

Prensky, M. (2014). Future-oriented Education: A new way to describe our goal. Simons, J., Vansteenkiste, M., Lens, W., & Lacante, M. (2004). Placing motivation and future time perspective theory in a temporal perspective. Educational Psychology Review,16(2), 121-139. doi:10.1023/b:edpr.0000026609.94841.2f

Trommsdorff, G. (1983). Future orientation and socialization. International Journal of Psychology,18(1-4), 381-406. doi:10.1080/00207598308247489

Wainwright, L., Nee, C., & Vrij, A. (2016). ‘I don’t know how, but I’ll figure it out somehow’: Future possible selves and aspirations in ‘at-risk’ early adolescents. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 62(2), 504-523. doi:10.1177/0306624×166

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