Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.
These are the directions that professor Laura King and her colleagues gave to a group of undergraduates in a controlled experiment conducted in 2000 (“The Health Benefits of Writing About Life Goals,” 801) The students were then asked to write for 20 minutes each day for four consecutive days.
This is just one of many experiments King has conducted over more than a decade to explore the beneficial effects of writing about both our past and our future. In this particular scenario, the students who wrote about their “best possible selves” experienced “a significant increase in subjective well-being” when assessed three weeks later. Five months later, it turned out they were also sick significantly less often than the control group.
Timothy Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virgina, references King’s work in his recent Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change and adds the following advice, which I find helpful to anyone who is embraces “best possible self” writing as a goal-oriented learning exercise:
Don’t just think about what you have achieved (e.g., getting your dream job), but be sure to write about how you got there (e.g., doing an internship, going to graduate school). By so doing you might become more optimistic about your future and cope better with any obstacles you encounter. (Kindle Edition, 73)
This is in line with what I wrote about goals in an earlier post. We’re more likely to realize our goals if we clearly see the contrast between a positive future and our current reality and then consciously embrace the work that it will take to move from the present to the future.
Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California – Riverside, also writes about King’s work in The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want. She has conducted her own experiments with “best possible self” and found positive results similar to King’s. She notes, however, that “the biggest boosts in happy mood were observed among those participants who believed that the exercise “fitted” them best (i.e., who found it interesting, challenging, and meaningful) and practiced it with sustained effort.” (Kindle Edition, 104)
Like Wilson, Lyubomirsky suggests that “the exercise wasn’t just about imagining a model future for them; it was also about building a best possible self today that can make that future come true.” (Kindle Edition, 105)
It’s not a magic bullet, but clearly writing that is focused on a “best possible self” had tremendous potential. The key is in fully engaging with it and comprehending the steps that will take you from where you are now to where you want to be.
So, give King’s directions a shot:
Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams.
Now, write about what you imagined.
I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.