What is the Best Possible Self Exercise?
When I first started exploring the world of positive psychology, I admit I was a huge cynic. I didn’t understand the science behind the bright t-shirt slogans that yelled “Choose Happiness!” and I railed against ‘toxic positivity’ and perceived band aid solutions to deep mental health issues.
Years later, after interviewing dozens of global experts and reading countless peer-reviewed research articles, after studying and gaining certifications, and after podcasting and writing on the topic of happiness every week, I admit there are some topics that still make me sceptical. Granted, the list is quite short now, and although these truly are scientifically proven to increase life satisfaction, when it comes to meditation, mindset exercises and positive affirmations, they’re just not for me.
Having said that, as an author and blogger, I cannot deny the power of writing or journaling. Writing helped me to not only recover from depression and trauma. It also helped me discover the power of positive psychology and a love of life. That’s why I’m happy to be exploring the Best Possible Self exercise this week, one of the most widely used Positive Psychology Interventions – even though it really boils down to being a mindset exercise but in long-form writing. But as with all topics on this site, it is science-backed and has been proven to help people be more optimistic and achieve a happier, healthier life. So, read on!
What’s the Science?
Time and time again, the personality trait of optimism has been shown to increase wellbeing, leading to greater physical wellbeing and even longevity. Optimists are happy people, who look forward to the future, and believe things will work out. That’s not to say that bad things don’t happen to them or that they don’t feel the appropriate negative feelings – like sadness, frustration or anger – because that is a natural and healthy response when things go wrong. Instead, optimists have a level of resilience that allows them to work through their feelings and move forward quickly.
“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” – John Lennon
So, if optimism has so many benefits, then wouldn’t it be great if you could learn it? Well, you can. All it takes is the Best Possible Self exercise, which many researchers have studied and determined it can positively impact people’s mindset and increase optimism – leading to higher levels of mental and physical wellbeing.
In one study, researchers asked participants to write about their best self across personal, relational, and professional dimensions for five minutes a day, over two weeks. They then measured the effects on optimism and mood after one day, one week and two weeks. The results showed that participants had significantly larger increases in optimism compared to people who simply wrote about daily activities, both after only one session and over two weeks.
A second study, led by Sonja Lyubomirsky and colleagues, lasted four weeks and played with some factors to see what might detract from or amplify the results. Not surprisingly, the study supported previous research validating that the BPS exercise significantly boosted positive affect and flow. Additionally, they found that there was no difference in results when completing the exercise online versus in-person. However, students who read a testimonial about the benefits of BPS had the best gains in wellbeing compared to those who read neutral information or completed a control task. “The results lend legitimacy to online self-administered happiness-increasing activities and highlight the importance of participants’ beliefs in the efficacy of such activities for optimum results,” said the researchers.
Convinced? Let’s get started!
How to do the Best Possible Self Exercise
Time: 10-15 mins per day for 2 weeks
What you need: Pen and paper or journal
This is a simple exercise that can have profound impacts. All you need to do is set aside 10-15 minutes a day for two weeks. Find somewhere quiet or peaceful to sit and write continuously about your imagined best possible future. Let all ideas come freely, don’t sensor anything… even bad grammar or spelling. Let it all out on paper.
STEP 1: Block some time in your diary or calendar to dedicate to this activity over a 2-week period (or more). Lock it in so it happens!
STEP 2: Decide how to organise what you want to write about. You can try social, health, academic and career, or personal, relational, and professional, or come up with your own dimensions.
STEP 3: Sit somewhere quiet and distraction free. Set a timer for 10-15 minutes.
STEP 4: Write on paper about your realistic best possible future self for each category. Imagine that you are happy and have all you want. You have worked hard, opportunities have presented themselves, and you have taken them. You have achieved all that you imagined possible. Think about the steps that would be needed to get there, and how you would feel making that positive progress. When painting your ideal future, be as specific as you can. Who would be there with you? What would you be doing? How would you do it? What would you see, hear, taste, smell? Be descriptive and imaginative and really put yourself into a day in the life of your best possible future self.
STEP 5: Repeat the exercise the next day, and the next, and the next. Stick with it for at least 2 weeks.
Before you go: Final Words of Caution
Be realistic: You may be tempted to write about a future in which you win the lottery or marry your (already married) high-school sweetheart. Be careful to be realistic about your best possible future self. If you spend too much time wanting something that simply cannot happen, then it can often have negative mental health impacts.
Focus on the future: Similarly, make sure you stay focused on the future. Another trap is to spend too much time worrying about what you did or didn’t do in the past that will prevent your best possible future self from being realised.
That’s it. Happy writing!
Want to make happiness a habit in your life? Simply subscribe to the Happiness for Cynics podcast and my email newsletter for your weekly dose of happiness!
Want the science? Check out these studies
King, A. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 798-807.
Layous, K., Nelson, S. K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). What is the optimal way to deliver a positive activity intervention? The case of writing about one’s best possible selves. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14(2), 635-654.
Meevissen, Y., Alberts H., & Peters, 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
Carrillo, A., Rubio-Aparicio, M., Molinari, G., Enrique, Á., Sánchez-Meca, J., & Baños, R. M. (2019). Effects of the Best Possible Self intervention: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PloS one, 14(9).