Whether you're a therapist, a client, or neither, this positive psychology exercise is a good one to try. This exercise, called Best Possible Self, by researchers and practitioners, is one of the stronger happiness exercises because it has good research support (see below) and people tend to find the exercise beneficial.Whether you're a therapist, a client, or neither, this positive psychology exercise is a good one to try. This exercise, called Best Possible Self, by researchers and practitioners, is one of the stronger happiness exercises because it has good research support (see below) and people tend to find the exercise beneficial.
The exercise has been shown to boost people’s positive emotions, happiness levels, optimism, hope, improve coping skills, and elevate positive expectations about the future. I suggest you to consider it in two basic steps: visualizing yourself at a future moment in time having accomplished your goals and considering the character strengths you’ll need to deploy to make that vision a reality.
Here are some steps to help guide you:
- Take a few minutes to select a future time period (e.g., 6 months, 1 year, 5 years from now) and imagine that at that time you are expressing your best possible self strongly. Visualize your best possible self in a way that is very pleasing to you and that you are interested in.
- Imagine it in close details where you have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing your life goals. 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.
- 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.
- Be sure to write about the character strengths that you observe in this image.
- And, what character strengths will you need to deploy to make this best possible self a reality?
Some people prefer to reverse the process by writing about the image before sitting back and playing it forward in their mind.
I’ve heard a wide variety of people’s best possible self stories. Here are a few (note that when you do the exercise you’ll want to consider far more details that these snapshots):
- I can envision starting a family and we are spending quality time together vacationing and going to activities together in the city.
- I will need to use my prudence strength to map out my long-term finances, my perseverance strength as my spouse and I “keep trying” to have children, and my forgiveness strength which will help me “let go” of any blame I might impose on myself or my spouse as we encounter obstacles along the way.
- I see myself doing work that is meaningful and fills me with a sense of purpose as I help people reach their dreams on a daily basis.
- I will use my love of learning and curiosity strengths as I return to school to study new topic areas. I will also use social intelligence by networking with people in the helping profession and staying open to emerging possibilities that might broaden my experiences.
- I have created a small business on the Internet, and with a few employees helping me, I’ve found a way to shift from unemployed to happily engaged in successful work.
- I will need to use my strengths of creativity to bring forth my new product, my judgment/critical thinking to devise many different marketing pathways, and teamwork to help me remember that this enterprise is a team effort and not just me alone.
How about you? What is your best possible self a year from now?
[Take the new, much briefer test of your character strengths. It is free and scientifically valid.]
Austenfeld, J. L., & Stanton, A. L. (2008). Writing about emotions versus goals: Effects on hostility and medical care utilization moderated by emotional approach coping processes. British Journal of Health Psychology, 13, 35-38.
Austenfeld, J. L., Paolo, A. M., & Stanton, A. L. (2006). Effects of writing about emotions versus goals on psychological and physical health among third-year medical students. Journal of Personality 74(1), 267-286.
King, A. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(7), 798-807.
Meevissen, Y. M. C., Peters, M. L., & Alberts, H. J. E. M. (2011). Become more optimistic by imagining a best possible self: Effects of a two week intervention. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 42, 371-378.
Peters, M. L., Flink, I. K., Boersma, K., & Linton, S. J. (2010). Manipulating optimism: Can imagining a best possible self be used to increase positive future expectancies? Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(3), 204-211.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Shapira, L. B., & Mongrain, M. (2010). The benefits of self-compassion and optimism exercises for individuals vulnerable to depression. Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(5), 377-389.
Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: the effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 73-82.