Nearly everyone has had the experience of thinking, “I use to be excited about the future, but now I am just trudging through life one day at a time.”
Does that describe you? What happened? Does it feel as though you have lost the ability to dream, to believe in yourself enough to imagine a brighter future?
If so, you are not alone. It happens. Often.
Daily pressures of meeting work and family obligations can be overwhelming. Without realizing it we slowly lose sight of possibilities. As the years go by our gaze shifts more and more to the present: putting one foot in front of the other just to meet the demands of each day. Dreams that at one time held such promise, that fueled a sense of anticipation and joy, eventually lie deflated in the back of our minds.
During these seasons of life, it may feel impossible to channel that inner mojo attitude of Little Orphan Annie:
The sun’ll come out
So ya gotta hang on
Come what may
“Uh, yeah. Sure thing kid” you say to yourself. It seems far fetched, even childish, to think that we can rekindle that youthful flame of joyful anticipation about the future.
Except, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s easier than you think – but no one has told you what you can do to recharge your optimism. How you can fire up a renewed zest for life.
What do I have in mind? Not a sports car (although that’s not a bad idea). Not a trip to the islands (an even better idea!).
None of those things. What I have in mind is less expensive than a sports car and takes less time than a vacation. But it packs a bigger punch than either of them, and will last a lot longer as well.
Best Possible Self
Do you remember being a child, or a teen, and often thinking about what life would be like in the future? It turns out that this type of thinking, where one leans into the future, has the effect of increasing optimism and lifting one’s mood.
A little more than 20 years ago, psychologists began to research how to maximize the beneficial impact of harnessing this type of thinking. They came up with an exercise that took just a few minutes a day.
What is this exercise? Quite simple really. You spend that time vividly imagining what life could be like were you to develop into the best possible version of yourself.
Utpal Dholakia, a professor at Rice University, sums it up in the following way:
“Originally discovered by psychologist Laura King in 2001, a number of studies in the last 5-6 years show that doing a simple visualization exercise can boost anyone’s optimism. Psychologists call it the “best possible self” visualization. In simple terms, it involves generating vivid images of positive events occurring in the future with you in the center of them.”
Before we move forward and review the simple steps to increasing your optimism, I want to quickly mention why you should even make the effort.
TWO: The more optimistic you are the less physical illness you are likely to experience.
THREE: Optimism acts as a barrier to depression (and I suspect to anxiety as well). Not a perfect barrier, not a Star Wars shield that absolutely prevents depression, but it can certainly move the needle in your favor of being less depressed, and over time may be an important factor in resolving depression.
FOUR: Bonus points, optimism even causes people to experience pain less intensely.
What Do I Need To Do?
Carve out 10 to 20 minutes of private time each day. Make sure you will not be interrupted. A ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on your door, the phone in another room, the spouse sent on an errand (OK, perhaps you don’t need to go that far, but you get the idea).
Also, circle this time of day on your calendar. You have an appointment with yourself. Really? Yes, really. It’s that important: and by putting this time on your calendar you make it much more likely to stick with the schedule. That critical because if you don’t follow the schedule, you won’t get the benefits.
You’ll need a couple more things. A comfortable place to sit, and a pen/pad of paper. Terrific. Now you’re are all set. Take a deep breath. Maybe several. Put the stressors of the day aside for a moment. Just relax and let your body begin to sink into the chair or couch.
Here is the critical part, begin to think about what life would be like were you to fully develop your strengths, and likewise minimize your weaknesses.
This is not an exercise in fantasy. It is not a matter of thinking how terrific it would feel to flap your arms and fly, or develop the capacity to teleport to other planets.
That’s pure fantasy. This task is grounded in reality.
The foundation of this exercise is rooted in taking stock of the very real strengths you possess, and what transformational impact it would have were you to build them up to their full potential.
With that in mind write down what life would look like were this to happen. Imagine your most important dreams and aspirations through the lens of your best possible self.
Approach this with the mindset that you have worked very hard to achieve your deepest goals, and they have turned out just as you imagined. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, etc. No one is looking over your shoulder. No one is grading your writing. This is just for you.
Focus on your most important goals.
It may be helpful to divide these up into several categories.
Some examples include:
Finances and where you live.
For example, you might focus on how a friendship might deepen and become more supportive/trusting. What would that mean for your life? How would it make you feel? Would you end up travelling with this friend? Going on adventures together? Feeling a deep sense of connection throughout the years?
For personal achievement you might write about getting back into exercising and how that would make you feel, the activities that would allow you to enjoy, or the difference that might make in how you spent each day.
On the other hand you might have some musical abilities, and decide to reflect on what would happen to your life were you to develop these fully. Would this expand your circle of friendships? Create opportunities to perform at local venues? Open the door to expressing yourself in ways that are currently not possible?
You don’t need to cover every category of growth each time you sit down to meditate and write. Mix them up some and see what happens when you focus on one type of ‘Best Possible Self’ versus another.
Count on doing this everyday for a week, and then three or four times a week thereafter. That would be an hour a week once you get rolling. If that seems like an extravagant amount of time to devote to enhancing your happiness, consider how much it may also improve the lives of others. Your spouse will benefit, as will your children, co-workers and nearly anyone with whom you interact.
As this exercise moves you forward in life your happiness will grow. As this occurs the lives of those you interact with will be touched as well. After all, happy people tend to be those that improve the lives of others (yes, unhappy people can positively influence others, but happy people are more likely to do so).
The point is that your efforts at self-improvement benefit not only you, but those around you.
It’s that simple. Ten to twenty minutes a day for a week. After that continue with a reduced frequency (if that is your preference) of every other day or so.
The main thing is to jump in and give it a try. Don’t put it off, or decide to ‘give it some serious thought.’ Just move forward and start enjoying the benefits of learning anew how to dream big.
Forrest Talley is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Folsom California.
How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.