What if there was a simple exercise that you could do anywhere in just a few minutes that was scientifically shown to improve your mood and your outlook on the future, at least for a while? Would you do it? That exercise exists. It's called the "best possible self" intervention, or BPS, and multiple recent studies confirm that it can lift your mood and increase your optimism, at least on a temporary basis.
The best possible self intervention consists of a brief writing exercise in which you imagine your best possible self in a potential future when pretty much everything has gone right. Your business is flourishing, your family life is going great, you have a healthy bank account. Take a few minutes to visualize that life and write a description, in as much detail as you like, of how that life would be. That may not sound like it would make a big difference, but it's big enough to have been measured in multiple studies by researchers Johannes Bodo Heekerens and Michael Eid of Freie University in Berlin.
The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 34 studies (out of a possible 249) selected because they required a written best-possible-self exercise and not merely a visualization, because the best possible self was the only intervention being tested, and the test subjects were part of the overall population, not drawn from a clinical population with known mental health issues. The studies included a total of 2,627 subjects, about three quarters of them female. The result was a small but measurable increase in positive affect and optimism, the researchers wrote.
A few months earlier, the researchers had also conducted their own study, asking 188 psychology undergraduate students to either complete a best-possible-self writing exercise or, for the control group, write about their previous day. These subjects were evaluated right before the exercise, right after, and then one week later for positive affect, positive future expectations and "goal ambivalence" -- the feeling that a goal may not be worth pursuing after all. Besides being obviously bad for your career and other ambitions, goal ambivalence has been associated with anxiety and depressive symptoms.
The researchers found that the best-possible-self exercise improved positive affect and positive expectations, and reduced goal ambivalence, both right after the exercise and up to a week later. They suggested that future studies should look at what happens when subjects repeat the best possible self exercise on a regular basis and see if it produces a sustained improvement in optimism over time. That might explain its known ability to reduce symptoms of depression.
Future studies are a great idea, but in the meantime, it's smart to start using the best possible self exercise right away. It only takes a few minutes, costs nothing, and will leave you feeling better than you did before. Also, visualizing a future in which you've achieved your goals will make it easier to actually reach for those goals and perhaps achieve them. There's really no down side.
If you're ready to give it a shot, here's a best possible self exercise that you can try:
1. Visualize your best possible future self.
Close your office door or find a place where you will be undisturbed for a few minutes. Select a time in the future -- it could be ten years from now, or six months from now. Imagine yourself in that future where things have gone right. You've started that company you've been dreaming about, and it's already turning a healthy profit. Or you've landed that huge client or gotten that dream job. Your relationship and family are happy, and you're living in a home that you love.
Please do not visualize yourself doing something like winning the World Series unless you already are a major league baseball player. The point is not to visualize your greatest fantasy, but a best possible future that is attainable in the real world.
Once you pick your future time frame, spend a few moments mentally exploring it. How would you feel? Where would you be? Who would you be with?
2. Spend 10 minutes writing it down.
Now spend 10 minutes writing a description of that future self. Write it in as much detail as you would like, or be vague and abstract. Answer questions about your future self and future life, or simply write about how it feels to have achieved most of your biggest goals.
Don't worry about getting it "right," just write whatever comes to mind. Don't spend too much time stopping and thinking about it, and don't worry about things like grammar and spelling. After all, unless you decide otherwise, no one is ever going to see this but you.
And that's it! If you're like most people, this exercise will immediately improve your mood and your outlook on life, and that effect may last as long as a week. You can try different versions of the exercise, visualizing your best possible self in different aspects of your life.
In fact, this might be a good weekly ritual, maybe something to do every Sunday evening to start the week off right. I plan to give it a try. How about you?