How vivid is the picture? How much promise does it hold?
When your vision of the future holds the possibility of excitement and fulfillment for you, it not only casts a glow on your present, but it shapes your current decisions in a way that makes the fulfillment of its promise more likely.
Chances are you expect your future to work out reasonably well. You have a loose sense of how you would like to be living, what you would like to have achieved, what areas of your life will have blossomed two, three, five years down the road.
But, since it’s in the future, and you have no way of knowing what will happen between now and then, you probably haven’t invested much of yourself in fleshing out the details of the picture.
What would happen if you did? What if you invested some time in creating a full-blown image of the way your life would look five years down the road if everything went spectacularly well for you between now and then?
That’s what Professor Laura King at the University of Missouri-Columbia set out to discover back in 2001. She pioneered the first experimental study of optimism by having a group of participants do what’s come to be known as the Best Possible Self exercise—and that’s the Positivity Practice we’re going to explore today.
I’ll describe the exercise first, and then share with you the fabulous benefits you can expect to gain by doing it yourself. Here’s how it works:
1. Carve out 20 minutes where you can write undisturbed. Have a way to time yourself and stick with it for the full 20 minutes. Even if at first it feels like a daunting challenge, once you begin, you will find yourself relaxing and getting into the flow.
2. Select a future time frame: two years from now, three, five, ten—whatever feels good to you. Sit quietly for a moment with your eyes closed, relaxing and watching your breath. When you feel centered in yourself, begin writing whatever comes to mind about the Best Possible Self you can imagine in the future point that you chose.
Now here’s the good part: Imagine that everything has gone wonderfully well for you, that you put worked toward you goals with diligence, patience, persistence and playfulness. And now you have manifested your own best potentials and created your life dreams. What would your life be like then? Write for 20 minutes about this Best Possible Self.
3. Stop at the end of 20 minutes, sit quietly again, allowing what you have written to settle inside you, and then put your work aside.
4. Over the course of the next four weeks, add to your vision whenever you feel like it, taking as much or as little time as you like.
You may want to use our Dream Creation Diagram to broaden your picture so it includes everything you might want it to hold.
What You’ll Gain
- To sustain positivity at a high level in your life, says the godfather of happiness research, Martin Seligman, you need to cultivate it in all three segments of your time line: past, present and future. By doing The Best Possible Self practice, you create the most positive future for yourself that you can imagine .
- In addition, you will probably find that, like the participants in the studies who utilized this practice, you’ll feel an immediate boost in your mood right now, in the present, be happier several weeks afterward, and even have fewer physical symptoms three months down the road.
- The practice is far more than an indulgence of your imagination. By helping you clarify your ideals, it motivates you to be your best possible self today, to see the path ahead more clearly and to make decisions in alignment with your goals.
- The very act of writing forces you to slow down and really think about your ideals. Because it is a structured activity, it leads you to organize your thoughts, to clarify and crystallize them. It helps you see where some of your goals might conflict with each other, leading you to think them through and prioritize or adapt them.
- The practice also gives you a new window into yourself, a fresh way of seeing your feelings, your motives, and what’s really important to you. It also provides you with an enhanced sense of control about your future course, strengthening your optimism, and adds meaning to your life experiences as you gain insight about what you can be doing in the present to move you toward your ideals.
Those are some pretty powerful benefits to gain for the mere investment of your time. If you play with this practice diligently, at the end of the four weeks you will have gained far more than you would from a self-development program costing you hundreds of dollars or more. And the insights you’ll gain will be all the more powerful because you generated them yourself.
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Thanks to Sonja Lyubomsirsky and her book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want for her description of this practice and its proven results. A veritable treasure trove of positivity practices, Sonja’s book is a great resource for anyone who’s interested in creating a more exhilarating, meaningful life.