What are your hopes for the future? Too often we go through the motions of life- running from one activity to the next- without taking time to think about how we can do things now to further develop our “best self”.
What would happen if you made time, just 5 minutes, to sit down quietly to consider your future? Not your future work tasks or fun things you’ll be doing, but who you want to be in your future. Researchers ask people this and take it a step further: Picture yourself – at your actual best – thriving and living a full, happy life one year from now. Researchers call this your best possible self.
And they have studied it. Quite a bit actually. There have been 31 scientific studies published on this, most coming out in the last 8 years. A new study this month reviewed all of those studies to see if this best possible self activity was beneficial. They found the activity to be quite successful in these ways:
- It boosts optimism and hope, so you are quicker to look for the positive amidst the downpour of stress and negativity that often surrounds us.
- It boosts positive emotions, so you feel good in the moment. Typical positive emotions are feelings like joy, interest, gratitude, excitement, and peace.
- It boosts health and well-being. We can all benefit from feeling healthier and experiencing a more global sense of wellness.
Researchers have looked at this activity from different angles. Sometimes they ask people to look at their best possible self in a general way in the future, and others focus on a particular domain such as your best possible self in a relationship or in your community or in your career.
Here are some steps to help guide you. I’ve added in the step of character strengths to help you think of the actual pathways to getting to your best possible self after you imagine it (this is a crucial step missed by many researchers).
1. Select a time in your future (e.g., 6 months, 1 year, 5 years from now) and imagine that at that time you are expressing your best possible self strongly.
2. Imagine it in details where you have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing your life goals and deepened your relationships. You might think of this as reaching your full potential, hitting an important milestone, or realizing one of your life dreams. The point is not to think of unrealistic fantasies, rather, things that are positive and attainable within reason.
3. After you have a fairly clear image, write about the details. Writing your best possible self down helps to create a logical structure for the future and can help you move from the realm of foggy ideas and fragmented thoughts to concrete, real possibilities.
4. Write about the character strengths that you observe in this image. See the full list of 24 character strengths.
5. And, what character strengths will you need to deploy to make this best possible self a reality?
The researchers then suggested a new twist to advance the exercise: Consider a best possible self for someone else. This has not been studied yet but the activity might go something like this:
Think about the life of your loved one in the future, perhaps 1 year from now. Imagine that everything is going well for them. They have succeeded in accomplishing great things, built strong relationships, and experienced good health. Imagine the character strengths they have used to make this happen. What character strengths helped them build these good relationships? Which ones were instrumental in helping them reach high achievements? What character strengths helped them build good health?
This activity may help you “see the good” in your relationship partner as well as bring you to more clearly appreciate their best qualities.
Research has not yet followed up with people who do this exercise. Wouldn’t it be interesting to learn what percentage of people actually achieve their best possible self one year after they first imagined it? Does checking in with a helping professional or coach each month on best possible self goals and strengths used serve to make achieving it a reality?
So, I bring it back to you: Have you imagined your best possible self lately?
For more details and examples of what people have said when doing this exercise, take a look at my previous article on the best possible self.
Loveday, P. M., Lovell, G. P., & Jones, C. M. (2018). The best possible selves intervention: A review of the literature to evaluate efficacy and guide future research. Journal of Happiness Studies, 19. DOI:10.1007/s10902-016-9824-z
Niemiec, R. M. (2018). Character strengths interventions: A field-guide for practitioners. Boston: Hogrefe.