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Best Possible Self

Foster optimism by imagining a positive future.

Duration: 15 mins Frequency: 1x/day Difficulty: Moderate

Time Required

15 minutes per day for two weeks

How to Do It

Take a moment to imagine your life in the future. What is the best possible life you can imagine? Consider all of the relevant areas of your life, such as your career, academic work, relationships, hobbies, and health. What would happen in these areas of your life in your best possible future?

For the next 15 minutes, write continuously about what you imagine this best possible future to be. Use the instructions below to help guide you through this process.

  1. It may be easy for this exercise to lead you to examine how your current life may not match this best possible future. You may be tempted to think about ways in which accomplishing goals has been difficult for you in the past, or about financial/time/social barriers to being able to make these accomplishments happen. For the purpose of this exercise, however, we encourage you to focus on the future—imagine a brighter future in which you are your best self and your circumstances change just enough to make this best possible life happen.  
  2. This exercise is most useful when it is very specific—if you think about a new job, imagine exactly what you would do, who you would work with, and where it would be. The more specific you are, the more engaged you will be in the exercise and the more you’ll get out of it.  
  3. Be as creative and imaginative as you want, and don’t worry about grammar or spelling.

Why You Should Try It

Sometimes our goals in life can be elusive. But research suggests that building optimism about the future can motivate people to work toward that desired future and thus make it more likely to become a reality.

This exercise asks you to imagine your life going as well as it possibly could, then write about this best possible future. By doing so, research suggests that you’ll not only increase your happiness in the present but pave the way for sustained happiness down the line.

Why It Works

By thinking about your best possible future self, you can learn about yourself and what you want in life. This way of thinking can help you restructure your priorities in life in order to reach your goals. Additionally, it can help you increase your sense of control over your life by highlighting what you need to do to achieve your dreams.

Evidence That It Works

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(2), 73-82.

Undergraduate students in Missouri who completed the Best Possible Self exercise daily for two weeks showed increases in positive emotions right afterward. Those who kept up with the exercise even after the study was over continued to show increases in positive mood one month later.

Who Has Tried the Practice?

While the students in the study above were mostly white and female, additional studies have explored how this exercise benefits other groups and cultures:

  • Norwegians in a four-week online program who did Best Possible Self (along with various other well-being exercises) reported increases in emotional well-being lasting six months, regardless of gender, age, or education level.
  • Diverse American undergraduates (mostly of Asian, Latino, or white descent) wrote about their Best Possible Self once a week for four weeks and experienced gains in positive emotions and social connection.
  • Mostly Asian and Hispanic American undergraduates who spent 15 minutes per week writing about their Best Possible Self for eight weeks felt happier immediately afterward and six months later, but only if they chose the practice and put a lot of effort into it.
  • International students at a culturally diverse university in the United Arab Emirates completed Best Possible Self as part of a 13-week happiness program and reported higher levels of well-being afterward.
  • People with troubled children, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, or clinical depression all wrote about their Best Possible Self across several weeks and showed improvements in mental health.
  • South Korean and Chinese university students who did Best Possible Self as part of six- and eight-week wellness programs increased in well-being and decreased in depression, respectively.
  • Chinese and Singaporean university students who spent at least 15 minutes writing about their Best Possible Self reported improvements in emotional well-being.
  • Chronic pain patients with physical disabilities completed Best Possible Self during an eight-week program, and fibromyalgia patients wrote about their Best Possible Self at least three times a week for four weeks. Both groups increased in emotional well-being and decreased in pain symptoms.
  • Iranian cardiac patients who wrote about their Best Possible Self during a six-week wellness program displayed improvements in happiness, hope, depression, and stress biomarkers.
  • Indian adolescents reported gains in well-being, life satisfaction, and happiness after writing about their Best Possible Self as part of a well-being program.

More research is needed to explore whether, and how, the impact of this practice extends to other groups and cultures.

Keep in Mind

Best Possible Self may be more beneficial for people from certain cultures or with certain personality traits:

  • Asian Americans and Anglo Americans spent 10 minutes writing about their Best Possible Self every week for six weeks. Asian Americans showed less improvement in life satisfaction than Anglo Americans. This is possibly because pessimism may be advantageous in group-oriented societies like the Asian American community, the researchers speculate.
  • In other contexts, however, the practice seems more beneficial for people who are less optimistic, who stand to gain more from imagining a positive future. Pessimistic HIV-infected women who wrote about their Best Possible Self in terms of health twice a week for four weeks reported lower levels of distress and larger increases in optimism than their optimistic counterparts.
  • The practice seems to be more beneficial for people who are more neurotic, or prone to negative emotions. Highly neurotic individuals who occasionally wrote about their Best Possible Self for three weeks became significantly happier, but individuals low in neuroticism did not report the same benefit.

Sources

Laura A. King, Ph.D., University of Missouri
Jeffrey Huffman, M.D., Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital

References

Auyeung, L., & Phoenix Kit, H. M. (2019). The efficacy and mechanism of online positive psychological intervention (PPI) on improving well-being among Chinese university students: A pilot study of the best possible self (BPS) intervention. Journal of Happiness Studies, 20(8), 2525–2550.

Boehm, J. K., Lyubomirsky, S., & Sheldon, K. M. (2011). A longitudinal experimental study comparing the effectiveness of happiness-enhancing strategies in Anglo Americans and Asian Americans. Cognition and Emotion, 25(7), 1263–1272.

Drozd, F., Mork, L., Nielsen, B., Raeder, S., & Bjørkli, C. A. (2014). Better days—A randomized controlled trial of an internet-based positive psychology intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 9(5), 377–388.

Enrique, A., Bretón-López, J., Molinari, G., Roca, P., Llorca, G., Guillén, V., Fernández-Aranda, F., Baños, R. M., & Botella, C. (2018). Implementation of a positive technology application in patients with eating disorders: A pilot randomized control trial. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 13.

González-Robles, A., García-Palacios, A., Baños, R., Quero, S., & Botella, C. (2019). Upregulating positive affectivity in the transdiagnostic treatment of emotional disorders: A randomized pilot study. Behavior Modification, 43(1), 26–55.

Hwang, K., Kwon, A., & Hong, C. (2017). A preliminary study of new positive psychology interventions: Neurofeedback-aided meditation therapy and modified positive psychotherapy. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues, 36(3), 683–695.

Khanna, P., & Singh, K. (2019). Do all positive psychology exercises work for everyone? Replication of Seligman et al.’s (2005) interventions among adolescents. Psychological Studies, 64(1), 1–10.

Kim-Godwin, Y. (2020). Effectiveness of best possible self and gratitude writing intervention on mental health among parents of troubled children. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 58(9), 31–39.

Lambert, L., Passmore, HA., & Joshanloo, M. (2019). A positive psychology intervention program in a culturally-diverse university: Boosting happiness and reducing fear. Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-being, 20(4), 1141–1162.

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: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being, 14(2), 635–654.

Liau, A. K., Neihart, M. F., Teo, C. T., & Lo, C. H. (2016). Effects of the best possible self activity on subjective well-being and depressive symptoms. The Asia-Pacific Education Researcher, 25(3), 473–481.

Liu, K., Duan, Y., & Wang, Y. (2021). The effectiveness of a web-based positive psychology intervention in enhancing college students' mental well-being. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 49(8), 1–13.

Lyubomirsky, S., Dickerhoof, R., Boehm, J. K., & Sheldon, K. M. (2011). Becoming happier takes both a will and a proper way: An experimental longitudinal intervention to boost well-being. Emotion, 11(2), 391–402.

Mann, T. (2001). Effects of future writing and optimism on health behaviors in HIV-infected women. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 23(1), 26–33.

Molinari, G., García-Palacios, A., Enrique, Á., Roca, P., Comella, N. F., & Botella, C. (2018). The power of visualization: Back to the future for pain management in fibromyalgia syndrome. Pain Medicine, 19(7), 1451–1468.

Müller, R., Gertz, K. J., Molton, I. R., Terrill, A. L., Bombardier, C. H., Ehde, D. M., & Jensen, M. P. (2016). Effects of a tailored positive psychology intervention on well-being and pain in individuals with chronic pain and a physical disability: A feasibility trial. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 32(1), 32–44.

Ng, W. (2016). Use of positive interventions: Does neuroticism moderate the sustainability of their effects on happiness? The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(1), 51–61.

Nikrahan, G. R., Laferton, J. A. C., Asgari, K., Kalantari, M., Abedi, M. R., Etesampour, A., Rezaei, A., Suarez, L., & Huffman, J. C. (2016). Effects of positive psychology interventions on risk biomarkers in coronary patients: A randomized, wait-list controlled pilot trial. Psychosomatics: Journal of Consultation and Liaison Psychiatry, 57(4), 359–368.

Nikrahan, G. R., Suarez, L., Asgari, K., Beach, S. R., Celano, C. M., Kalantari, M., Abedi, M. R., Etesampour, A., Rezaei, A., & Huffman, J. C. (2016). Positive psychology interventions for patients with heart disease: A preliminary randomized trial. Psychosomatics: Journal of Consultation and Liaison Psychiatry, 57(4), 348–358.

Pietrowsky, R., & Mikutta, J. (2012). Effects of positive psychology interventions in depressive patients—A randomized control study. Psychology, 3(12), 1067–1073.

Shapira, L. B., & Mongrain, M. (2010). The benefits of self-compassion and optimism exercises for individuals vulnerable to depression. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(5), 377–389.

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Science-based practices for a meaningful life, curated by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

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