1. THE QUESTION
Neurologist Jeffrey Schwartz’s defines a self-described depressed person as someone who cannot achieve regularly what she sets out to do.
No wonder December can feel so depressing to so many people. On one hand, we take stock of all we did not do that we thought we might during the current year, and on the other hand we face another year and wonder if we can muster a shred of hope to make things different.
But what if we have a tool at our disposal that is exponentially more likely to lead to the change we desire?
What is that tool?
You can craft vision boards, find a year-long intention word or three words or phrase, perform a New Year’s Eve I Ching reading, plan and plan and plan, and tell yourself 108 times each morning for a month that you’re a good person who deserves a fulfilling life.
And still, 12 months later, little beneficial change happens. Little gratification ensues. In fact, some of the above might be counter-productive. Not even goal-setting alone seems to work for most solo-preneurs and business owners. The office supply chain Staples conducted its annual study of business owners and goal-completion in 2010 and discovered that around 80% of business owners hadn’t looked at their annual goals just a few months after setting them.
So, what gives? Is there a science or an art to manifesting our dreams and achieving our goals? Is there something beyond wishful thinking and empty truisms that will up the chances that we will flourish with our best work in the year to come?
Yes. No. Sort of. I’m suspicious of quick fixes, but I’ve researched my own practices, my enterprises, our clients, and reams of social psychology and neuroscience. I don’t have the answer to manifesting your best possible vision and goals. But I do have tweaks to an intervention that’s been proven to work on people’s outlook, health, and disposition to problem-solve and fulfill their aspirations.
2. FROM GOAL-SETTING TO MEANING
Setting and following through on goals is necessary for most professionals, entrepreneurs, and creatives, as the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and other psychologists demonstrates. The authors of one study “New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory” articulate the correlations:
Feelings of success in the workplace occur to the extent that people see that they are able to grow and meet job challenges by pursuing and attaining goals that are important and meaningful.
The operative words here are “important” and “meaningful.” In order for us to feel a goal is meaningful often requires a certain kind of process in articulating that goal. In other words, if you spend five minutes “brainstorming,” listing, and then refining a goal in a work place setting, that goal might not sink down into your brain’s deep “meaning” section.
For something to be meaningful, we need other elements in place in performing the activity. We need vision. Deep intention. We need the goal to feel assimilated and coherent with the rest of our life – past, present, future. We need the right kinds of questions that will provoke us out of conventional thinking.
Might there be a simple, pleasurable, even more wondrous tool that includes much of the above?
It turns out there is. This intervention can work for creatives as well as for creative team leaders who want their team members to flourish. The tool is writing-based.
3. A WARNING ABOUT POSITIVE AFFIRMATIONS
The originator of this intervention is Laura A. King, professor of research psychology and recipient of the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Research and Creative Activity in 2004. King has an avid interest in how we derive meaning and cultivate happiness. She’s also interested in how writing about life experiences correlates with meaning-making and happiness.
In 2001, while professor at Southern Methodist University, she performed a study on graduate students. One group wrote about a traumatic event for four consecutive days. The second group she asked to write about future life goals and their best possible self for four consecutive days. A third group wrote about an emotionally neutral topic for the same period.
Three weeks later, students in groups 1 and 2 reported a notably more optimistic attitude toward their futures according to their completion of a test that correlates with better problem-solving. Five months later, students who wrote about and made meaning of a traumatic event and students who wrote about their best possible selves in the future visited the university’s health center notably less than students who wrote about an emotionally neutral subject.
Mindset, strong health, positive action all help us manifest our vision, goals, and intentions. But the key tool here to engrain these qualities is writing.
I’ll share with you in a moment King’s writing prompt about your best possible self. But first a warning. Vision boards can work. So can positive thinking. But wishful thinking of The Secret brand actually can be harmful to certain people.
For over thirty years, social psychologist Timothy Wilson has been studying what interventions really work to change people’s behavior. His book Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change illuminates many short-comings of simplistic ideas suggested by well-intending self-help teachers (Wilson also is the one who directed me to King’s work).
Wilson points to a 2009 study published in Psychological Science titled “Positive self-statements: Power for some, peril for others.”
Here’s Wilson on the difference between Stuart Smalley-like affirmations and the writing prompt:
For people with a low opinion of themselves, saying ‘I am a lovable person’ reminds them of all the ways in which they are not lovable, pushing them further into the doldrums.
The key difference [between affirmations and the writing prompt and other such interventions] is that simply thinking about how wonderful we are does not equip us with strategies to make ourselves so. …Indeed, research shows that people who focus on the process of achieving a desired outcome are more likely to achieve it than those who simply think about the outcome itself. (68)
And writing takes this process even further. Writing into your future engages imagination, heart, and other faculties so that your unconscious more fully assimilates the process.
4. THE ORIGINAL PROMPT
King published her findings in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Here’s a review of the guidelines as Wilson conveys it:
You are to find a quiet place and then for four consecutive nights follow these instructions (The end of the day, by the way, seems to be the more effective time for this exercise):
“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.”
5. THE PACK FACTOR & RADICAL QUESTIONS
I respect King’s and Wilson’s work tremendously, but I want to be audacious enough to take their tools even further by including two bold elements:
The Pack Factor – A major contributing factor to people feeling blue during the holidays is social isolation. What if people could share their future visions with other people? What if they could gain support, insight, even possible resources and collaborative partnerships to help realize those visions? What if those same people could in turn give of their best attributes and experiences to support their peers?
Radical Questions & Instigations – Sometimes we know ourselves too well. So when we venture on goal-setting or on describing our future, we default into tried and true ways of viewing ourselves. What if successful visionaries from different fields instigated others to imagine their next year in remarkably different ways than they could do for themselves?