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Creating the Best Possible Selfie

A thinking habit of high-hope people.

Key points

  • The "best possible self" is one of the most well-researched interventions in positive psychology.
  • Using positive emotions with intention is a powerful method for goal achievement.
  • Studies show exposure to achievement-related photographs predict success.

People with high hope flourish. This was the finding from a wide range of research I reviewed in Learned Hopefulness: The Power of Positivity to Overcome Depression. For high-hope people, hopefulness comes from believing they can navigate themselves well as life comes toward them. They have the sense, belief, and confidence that they can control some aspects of the future.

When we do not believe we control what is coming, feelings of helplessness and despair come upon us. Control, or more specifically the belief that we have control, is central to our well-being. Our beliefs drive our reaction to circumstances. It isn’t what happens that causes our reaction but our belief about what happened. This is an important distinction, particularly when we want to understand high-hope people. They see and respond to the world differently than those with low hope. What they believe changes how they respond.

How do we develop, adjust, and cultivate our beliefs? To a large degree, we find routine ways to feed how we view an experience. We can see it as good, bad, or neutral—stable, unstable, or controllable—and, of course, in many other ways. The key to understanding how beliefs work is knowing the perception of the experience is ours to decide. Once decided, we will keep finding ways to confirm this perception. If beliefs separate high-hope from low-hope people, repetition strengthens the contrast.

How we decide to interpret something begins by knowing we have a choice about how an event will be seen and experienced. Knowing we have a choice allows for options, which invites the creative process into the mix. How long does this take? If you give me one minute, I can show you.

Research has shown that there is heart coherence when we use positive emotions mixed with intention. This is an ideal state for creative visualization, which happens when high-hope people think about who and how they want to be in the future.

The best-possible-self visualization exercise was developed by Laura King, and many other researchers have confirmed its powerful effects. I’ve added a component that enhances the effect, which involves taking a picture of yourself in the future.

Think about a future where the best possible outcome has happened in every area of your life. Think about your career, creative endeavors, academic life, love, relationships, hobbies, health—everything. Think about what would happen in these areas of your life in your best possible future. Imagine everything working out in the best possible way.

Next, follow these steps.

Step 1: Write it all down. As you write down everything about your best-possible future life, it may be tempting to think about the difficulties, setbacks, or obstacles. But this exercise is exclusively about the future—not about the past. Imagine circumstances changing enough that a brighter future unfolds for you. You are aligning with the best possibility for yourself. Write down these future possibilities as if they have already taken place. Instead of “My house will be paid off,” try “My house is paid off, and we just had a mortgage-burning party with all my friends and family.”

Make it specific but not limiting. Specific instances with positive feelings associated with them will work better than vague ones. Instead of “I have a better job,” try “I have a fulfilling, lucrative job where I have creative input and my coworkers value me.” But don’t be so specific that you limit yourself: instead of “Bill is madly in love with me,” try “I’m with the right partner, feeling in love, enjoying every moment together.” You are identifying the what, not the how and who. Don't specify the airline if you see yourself flying first class. Keep in mind that how you would feel in the future is essential.

Be creative. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or even complete sentences. The idea is to use your powers of imagination and create something that aligns with who you are and what you want to become. Have fun with it—you are creating yourself.

Step 2: Create a "selfie" by depicting a scene. Tear out images and headlines from magazines, grab your kids’ crayons, find models from catalogs, and download stuff online. This is for you—so make it something you can resonate with.

Step 3: Keep this image in a place of honor. Take a picture of it to use as wallpaper on your phone, stick it on the fridge, put it up at work, frame it, and put it in your bedroom. Make it accessible so you’ll see it regularly, add to it as things evolve, and don’t worry about the timeline. Activating and cultivating hope and then keeping it accessible is essential. Studies show that depicting explicit images of achievement, known as supraliminal priming, actually helps people achieve their goals. Research by Tanja Bipp and her colleagues demonstrated that exposure to achievement-related photographs predicted academic success—and images of overcoming challenging goals predicted even greater success. By imagining the feelings and creating an image, you are using two powerful evidence-based means of creating your future self.

The idea behind the exercise is to get your dream into focus so that you can work toward your goal. How quickly will it work? As the American rapper, actor, author, and entrepreneur LL Cool J says: “DDHD—Dreams Don’t Have Deadlines.”

References

Tomasulo, D. (2020). Learned hopefulness: The power of positivity to overcome depression. New Harbinger Publications

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