´ Reality-checking the Best Possible Self Exercise (with real people) -
September 5, 2014

Young girl examining a leaf with magnifying glass at the park






105’000’000 results in 0.27 seconds. That’s what I got when I searched for the best possible self exercise. Now I didn’t get around to checking each one of them out but I am fairly confident that most of them mention:

  • instructions to the exercise
  • the scientific benefits of doing it
  • in some cases an example
  • the end

What they usually don’t mention is what happens when people sit down and do the exercise. That’s what I asked my Zurich Science of Happiness Meetup group to do. Here are the original instructions from Laura King’s paper “The Health Benefits of Writing about Life Goals” (2011):

Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.

Sounds straightforward. Apparently it is straightforward in the same way that tennis is: you have to get the ball over the net within the quadrant. However if you want to get good at it there are a couple of other things you need to know about it.

None of the 7 people sitting around the table are slow on the uptake but confusion was written all over their faces. Eventually everyone started writing and after 20 min we stopped.

Here’s just a selection of the questions people had:

  • Does this have to be realistic or can I dream about anything?
  • Do I think about my best self now and project that into the future or could I add more stuff to that future self?
  • What exactly is expected? Are there right or wrong answers? Things that are completely off-topic?
  • My best possible self is me today but with all my weaknesses fixed, right?
  • Does it include stuff I want to buy and own?
  • What is the goal of this exercise? If I know the goal I know better what to write about.
  • Is this supposed to make me happy by itself or should I incorporate it within others things?

When I asked people to elaborate a clarify these are just a couple of issues that came up:

  • What do I really want as opposed to what is expected of people like me?
  • Fear of being unrealistic and therefore being a subject to ridicule
  • Some people haven’t written in the company of others and had memories coming up which made them fear that they were not giving the ‘right’ answer
  • Being so used to thinking about weaknesses that the best possible self was a fixed version of that
  • Not being sure what to expect from the exercise in terms of its effects
  • Some people feel pressured when thinking about the ‘best’

So based on these observations what can you do to ease yourself into this exercise?

  • rest assured there are no right or wrong answers
  • try to tune into yourself and what you want as opposed to what is expected of you
  • do what feels good, this is also an exercise to induce positive emotions, so if dreaming big does lead you to feel excited write about it, if not just leave it
  • think about things you truly enjoy and how your life would look like if more of that was there
  • if you do the recommended four sessions on consecutive days take it as an opportunity to explore different versions of your best (or a good) possible self
  • if the notion of your ‘best possible self’ draws a blank just think of yourself on a great day and write about a good possible self

Have you done the best-possible-self exercise? If so what was your experience with it? Did you even do it four times? If yes this is the time to brag about it (pssst: if you want to brag but you have never done this exercise you could also tell me where you have seen the picture of this girl before ;-).


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