There is a long-established tradition in psychology for encouraging what has been termed as disclosive writing.
For many years, studies investigating the effectiveness of such writing tended to ask participants to write about traumatic or emotionally upsetting events over a specified period of time, typically three or four days. The logic behind this approach is that individuals are being asked to write about personal and meaningful experiences, and that this will encourage a certain level of focus and engagement in the task. Studies of this type have reported a wide range of positive results as it relates to mental and physical health.
It was at first thought that the key to these results may be the cathartic nature of the process, with this relating to the release of pent-up emotion related to the upsetting event. It was subsequently proposed that achieving personal insight through emotional writing, rather than catharsis, may be the most important element at play.
This personal insight, then, tends to revolve around individuals making sense of the trauma they – or others – have experienced and coming to see themselves as resilient and capable of coping with intense and challenging emotional experiences, thus establishing a connection with self-regulation.
Arising from this line of inquiry, in 2001, psychologist Laura King proposed a fresh departure, one less rooted in what she termed as the “bias” of linking positive health outcomes with emotional writing on negative events. Instead, she focused on the potential benefits of asking people to focus on positive occurrences.
With that in mind, she developed what has come to be known as the Best Possible Self intervention. In this initial research, she predicted that writing about a self-regulatory process rooted in positive experience – i.e., life objectives – would prove just as beneficial as writing about negative happenings or trauma.
Outlining what she meant by possible selves, King referred to earlier research which defined the concept as referring to “personalised representations of goals”. She also highlighted that such representations contain all our imaginable futures for ourselves, and also function as a link between motivation and self-concept.
Against this backdrop, King conducted a study in which participants were asked “to write narrative descriptions of their best possible selves”. Participants assigned to this condition were presented with the following instructions:
“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 realisation of all your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.”
Presenting her results, King reported that these participants tended to fare better relative to others assigned to different tasks when comparing scores on positive and negative mood ratings over time. These scores were calculated on a six-point scale and asked participants to rate the extent to which they felt, for example, happy, excited, satisfied, bored, worried, or unhappy in that moment. Three weeks on from the end of the formal phase, participants were asked to complete questionnaires on optimism and life satisfaction. Again, those asked to write about their best possible selves outperformed other participants.
Commenting upon the content of these written accounts, King pointed to certain patterns. While a wide range of topics were touched upon, common themes related to success in the workplace, self-improvement, marriage and family, travel, and home ownership.
Reflecting upon her findings, King suggested that writing about life goals appeared to be an effective way to reap the health benefits of writing, but without the emotional cost of focusing on trauma or negative occurrences. She acknowledged that further work was needed to support her findings, but maintained that it appeared to be an area of great potential.
In the 15 years since this work was published, several follow-up studies have been conducted, with the general trend being to support King’s findings. Different studies have linked the best possible self intervention with positive outcomes on, for example, life satisfaction, optimism, positive affect, and overall well-being.
One of the attractions of this intervention is that it is quite simple. In fact, it is so easy to do that there is nothing stopping anyone of us from resolving to start it today.
When committing to undertake the Best Possible Self intervention, is it useful to consider it as a two-step process. Firstly, follow the instructions as set out above, but then also think about what character strengths will be needed to bring that desired future about. Also, keep it grounded, i.e., focus on goals and objectives that you can realistically hope to achieve, as opposed to setting the bar too high. Then, when your desired vision for the future is clear in your head, write it down, including as much detail as you can.
The point here is that in doing this you help to create a logical structure relating to your future. This contrasts sharply with the sense of vagueness we all sometimes struggle with when thinking about how to move from where we are to where we think we want to be. And, in turn, if that logical structure is in place, then it can function as a road map of sorts, making it more likely that we will reach our desired destination.
So, it is not just that writing about best possible selves can increase our mental and physical health, it can also create a context in which we help to equip ourselves to achieve those goals.
Dr. Mark Barry