How to Find Your Best Possible Self

Does imagining your future make you more happy—or more anxious? Taking just 15 minutes every day to write down what you want to do in the future can help you realize what's most important to you, and put you on a path to achieving you goals. [Podcast]

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Episode 8 of the Science of Happiness Podcast by the Greater Good Science Center, featuring Adizah Eghan and Serena Chen in conversation with Dacher Keltner. 

Science of Happiness Podcast:
How to Find Your Best Possible Self

  • 22:33

Dacher Keltner: After her year in India, Adizah Eghan returned home to the San Francisco Bay Area to find herself in the fast lane of her career track. At only 25, she landed her dream job as a producer for the radio show and podcast, Snap Judgment. And then she had that experience that many of us have had, where we get what we think we always wanted… but then we want something more. We’re longing for something.

Adizah joins us today as our Happiness Guinea Pig. On each episode of our show, we have a happiness guinea pig try out a practice designed to boost happiness, resilience, kindness or connection. And then we explore the science behind it.

Adizah, thanks so much for being here.

Adizah Eghan: Thank you for having me.

Dacher Keltner: Have you ever been a guinea pig before?

Adizah Eghan: I don’t think so.

Dacher Keltner: Well we’re grateful you did it. So, I wanted to talk about the practice that you chose to do which was what?

Adizah Eghan: The best possible self.

Dacher Keltner: Why did you choose that?

Adizah Eghan: You know, I’m really busy and so I felt like this is something I can do for sure. And it seemed like something that was—that was very natural for me. I’m naturally very goal-oriented. And so I was like, ‘Okay, this seems like something that, you know, I can handle.’

Dacher Keltner: What’d you do?

Adizah Eghan: So the best possible self—the activity is you’re supposed to for two weeks you’re supposed to take 15 minutes out of your day and write about your future. Think about things that are really important to you. So your—your relationships, your work your health. And you know the more specific the better and you know, just go for it, just write whatever you can. And then one of the things that I think it was like the first point was like ‘you might find yourself—I’m paraphrasing here but—you might find yourself like bogged down in the details of what’s happening with your life now which certainly happened to me but you know it was like basically like but just keep writing. Just do it.’

And the idea is to write out all of the things that you want and to do it without casting judgment on yourself, and just to really, really stretch yourself to think about, what are the things that I want if there are no obstacles and if there are no barriers, and if I could just have this? And then hopefully the idea is that you can be on your way to achieving that just by writing it down and knowing that the possibility is out there.

The idea is to write out all of the things that you want and to do it without casting judgment on yourself, and just to really, really stretch yourself to think about, what are the things that I want if there are no obstacles, and if there are are no barriers, and if I could just have this?

Dacher Keltner: So it’s getting out of the concrete list-making and thinking about what lies ahead. So what did you start to think about? What lies ahead as the best possible self?

Adizah Eghan: Well, the first thing I thought about was relationships.

Dacher Keltner: Really?

Adizah Eghan: Yeah.

Dacher Keltner: Wow.

Adizah Eghan: ‘Cause I wanted to do relationships first before I did career. And so I was thinking about what kind of relationships. Of course, first I started actually analyzing my relationships now and…

Dacher Keltner: How’d that go?

Adizah Eghan: Ahhh…mmm. You know, I realized I am right now I am in full career mode. Just so you know, I’m 26 years old and I’m really I’m doing the thing where you’re just like, let me get to the place where I want to be. That’s where I’m at in life. So I realize, ‘Okay, I don’t know that I—I have friends but I don’t. You know, in the future I would love to have like, that nice support system and everything.

And so that was something I was thinking about. So in the present day I was analyzing like ‘Oh, wow, I haven’t like taken time to like hang out with my friends really and appreciate them.’ And then in the future I was thinking I want to have that community and that sense of friends who you can rely on and grow old with and have like playdates with your kids with.

Dacher Keltner: You know I mean it’s very interesting because you know your generation, and I really tell this a lot to the parents out there, you guys work harder than any generation in the past couple hundred years the data show and you’re just focused on work. And the science of happiness really aligns with what you’re saying, which is I mean in the end it’s the relationships that matter. And it’s cool it came up in your—in sort of your thinking about your future.

Adizah Eghan: Yeah, absolutely.

Dacher Keltner: What feelings did it trigger in you when you projected forward and thought about this community that you wanted to be part of your future.

Adizah Eghan: I think actually I, it made me a little more anxious.

Dacher Keltner: Uh-oh!

Adizah Eghan: Yeah. Only because I think about what I’ve heard from other people which is that you know it’s like oh you find your community now and you know it starts with your friends from college. And so for me it felt like, I just felt like I needed to be putting that work in now. And if I don’t do it now then I’m not going to have that like, community that I’m hoping will appear magically in the future.

Dacher Keltner: The right kind of anxiety. Build community.

Adizah Eghan: Yeah. I feel like community was kind of just like sewn into the fabric of our family life where it was something I didn’t really think about. My parents are both from Ghana and they were away from their family and their friends that they had back home and they found the other Ghanians in the area. And the other Ghanians in the area were in a similar situation and they all banded together and created their own family network.

I feel like what I’m realizing now is that it takes work to have a sense of community like that because when you’re living your day-to-day life, you have to make an effort to reach out to your friends and reach out to even reach out to your family and stay in touch with them and keep them updated on what’s going on and stay updated with what’s going on in their lives too.

So it’s not as effortless as it seemed when I was a kid. You know it’s kind of scary to look around and think, oh, I’m probably the same age as my parents when they started reaching out to those people and forming connections with those friends that they have now. And I am not doing anything like that. And so it definitely makes me wonder what’s going to happen when I get to their age. Am I going to feel lonely? Are a lot of us going to feel lonely? is this a generational thing or did I just not do the work?

Dacher Keltner: You know it really strikes me, Adizah, when you talk about next moves and how this best possible self exercise gets you to think about where you’re going. You know millennials, you guys have worked hard and you’re always getting graded and taking tests, you know it’s hard to get into college. How do you shake that?

Adizah Eghan: So one thing I heard—I actually heard this at a conference and they were talking about one thing that a lot of millennials are very used to is being graded and school, and so when you’re in your early 20s and you finish school and you’re trying to figure out how to measure your success or achieve your goals. One thing you can do in this is especially for the type A type’s is to make a rubric for yourself.

Dacher Keltner: I’m already having anxiety attacks. Keep going. What?! What are you recommending?

Adizah Eghan: Right. Then it’s not for you, but you know, it’s essentially like the same—a similar thing. You could think of it as like a cousin to the best possible self where it’s like, ‘Okay, in terms of relationships, in terms of friends, like what do I consider to be like, excellent. What is good? What is fair?’

Dacher Keltner: Do you get to grade your friends and roommates on the rubric as well or just yourself?

Adizah Eghan: No, just yourself.

Dacher Keltner: Was that useful for you?

Adizah Eghan: You know, I—it was something that really resonated with me. I heard it recently. So I felt like I was past the point of where I really felt like I was at that phase where I was really lost. But I felt like it would have been very useful. And I suggest it to people now.

Dacher Keltner: Just to keep track. I mean there’s so many expectations and demands placed on a lot of millennials like yourself and it’s just important to keep track, like you’re doing pretty good in the world.

Adizah Eghan: Yeah. And you know it’s like everyone talks about adulting and it’s kind of like just this bridge.

Dacher Keltner: When does that happen?

Adizah Eghan: I don’t know.

Dacher Keltner: Have you become an adult?

Adizah Eghan: I think I’m on my way. I think I’m close. I think I’m very close.

But it’s like there’s a bridge to being an adult. And it’s like you just have to figure out what works for you. And I’m—I’m all about that. Like, some people that’s not what they want to do and I completely understand that. And other people it brings them a sense of calm and, you know, hopefully it helps.

Dacher Keltner: I love this new cultural concept of adulting. But it actually tracks the neuroscience. There are all these new studies showing your frontal lobes which are kind of the home of adult-like functions like planning and so forth aren’t really functioning totally effectively until you’re 26, 27. So I’m with you on adulting.

Adizah Eghan: Yeah, and some people you know they don’t really adult and that’s okay. They figure out how to work. You just have to figure out how to work in the world. That’s what I feel like I’m realizing.

Dacher Keltner: I’m with you. Well, Adizah Eghan, we want to thank you for being our guinea pig—our Science of Happiness guinea pig. And I think that your message is really not only right at the heart of the science of happiness which it really does boil down to community but it is a challenge of the day and also for millennials is to think about things other than career goals and monetary goals and to imagine what the next community is going to be like. So thanks for being here.

Adizah Eghan: Thank you for having me.

Dacher Keltner: If you want to try the Best Possible Self exercise or other practices like it, you can find simple instructions on our website Greater Good in Action, that’s G-G-I-A dot Berkeley dot edu.

Studies show that building optimism about the future not only motivates people to work toward that desired future but increases happiness in the present moment as well. Here to shed some light on the science behind The Best Possible Self practice is my colleague, Serena Chen:, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and Director of the Self, Identity, and Relationships Lab.

Thanks for being here, Serena.

Serena Chen: Thanks for having me.

Dacher Keltner: So today we’re going to talk about the best possible self practice but I want to contextualize this and talk about the self which is something you’ve studied for some time. How do you think about the self?

Serena Chen: Even though we like to think about it as very stable as this source of like, continuity in our lives we think there is a self. But there are so many facets of the self and they’re malleable.

Dacher Keltner: You think so?

Serena Chen: Oh yeah, we have past selves, we have who we are now, and then the possible self is all about things that aren’t even true of ourselves yet. And yet they’re really meaningful to how we think about ourselves.

When you are on the phone with your critical mom, the person you are is a different person than you are with your loving girlfriends. It’s a different kind of self. They’re all there in you. But you know, your academic self is not going to come to the forefront—Why would it when you’re karaoking at night? Right, I mean it’s—

Dacher Keltner: Which I hear you do a lot of.

Serena Chen: That’s right, and I’m really good at it.

Dacher Keltner: So you know our guinea pig Adizah Eghan came in, and so she did this best possible self practice. What is it?

Serena Chen: So it’s envisioning this future self; it’s really a goal exercise thinking about goals that matter to you. We think about goals and who you want to be you know in sort of more ephemeral ways in our day-to-day life. This is asking you to really carve out 10 to 15 minutes, mindfully think about where you want to be—which most of us don’t take the time to do. We might take the time to do that and really pivotal moments or moments of crisis in our life or choices or decisions, but not in this extended kind of way.

This is asking you to really carve out 10 to 15 minutes, mindfully think about where you want to be—which most of us don’t take the time to do.

Dacher Keltner: Laura King kind of pioneered this best possible self practice. So what’d Laura King find in this first study of this practice?

Serena Chen: So Laura King, she showed that people who engaged in this exercise showed immediate increases in happiness and that this happiness, this positive affect, you know, when assessed two to three weeks later—remain. They remain higher in this postive affect compared to control participants. So it’s definitely, you know, has good implications for happiness. Which, you know, then has downstream consequences.

Dacher Keltner: Yeah, so I’m curious—how do you think about what this practice does?

Serena Chen: I mean the science says, and intuitively, it increases the sense of like, ‘I can do it.’ Optimism. ‘I can get there,’ right? And that motivates. That motivates you to take concrete steps. You need to think about those concrete steps with the exercise encourages you to do that, to get there. But it’s, you know, you’re not going to try it’s something you don’t feel is you don’t have a sense will be likely to occur. But engaging this exercise, visualizing details about what this possible self is like. You know, it makes it more concrete and vivid—it makes this future self, ‘Oh, it seems a little closer to my present self,’ and all of that is motivating. It makes people feel like, ‘Oh, I can actually do this.’ So, you know, that gets people going.

You know, it can be clarifying. It could help you reprioritize what’s important. Realize that, ‘Oh, it turns out I want to be there in 5 years and yet I’m doing nothing now that reflects that; there’s a bit of an inconsistency here. Maybe I ought to start doing something now for that later.’

Dacher Keltner: It’s interesting you bring up clarifying because in interviewing Adizah about this, you know, even though this is a really familiar task and I’m curious about your reflections on this, she got really anxious. She started thinking about the future and five years and it wasn’t climate change or economic uncertainty. It was just like, identity anxiety.

Serena Chen: I think it’s great that this exercise made her realize that because I think for many people, and I’ll say myself, I realize that when things were going badly like there were problems with my relationship because I was working so hard and getting more distance with family and friends who cared about me. And that’s what slapped me back into, ‘You got to pay attention to the relationships,’ where she’s doing this in a more, you know, less sort of dramatic way, sort of more mindful sort of way.

Dacher Keltner: You know, one of the things that I always bump up against when teaching the best possible self exercise of Laura King’s and then, you know, just thinking about the phenomenon is it gets really close to the ideal self. And also perfectionism. You know, particularly young women today, there’s too much best self self chatter in their minds, right? They’re thinking about perfect grades and exercise and diet and, you know, being a leader and, you know, sort of a champion on the soccer field. How do you sort that out? Like this really close boundary or relationship between the person I really could be that’s amazing but then also this perfectionism that’s problematic.

Serena Chen: Yeah, I think this is a little bit related to the anxiety comment. It can go both ways. It could go for positive change or it could be paralyzing and make you give up these possible future self dreams that you have. It’s important to have these positive idealized images but not to the point where not realizing them makes you feel like you’re a failure. And this is the perfectionist way of thinking. I think that the best possible self exercise it would be useful 15 years after it was first developed if there were something inserted in there to make sure that people think about it in terms of malleability and growth is possible. Right, because otherwise if I don’t make this possible self I am a loser, I’m a failure. Versus thinking about it is in terms of each day I can get a little bit closer. That change is possible. Personal growth is possible, improvement is possible.

So I think it could be supplements to the exercise that would maybe nudge it more in a safer direction.

Dacher Keltner: Serena Chen supplements. I know you and your students, Serena, are thinking a lot about how do you take these best possible self practices and get them into under-resourced communities, right? When you think about the lives that the, you know, one in five American children who are in poverty face, imagining a best possible self just—there are a lot of obstacles to that. What are they finding in that work? I mean, it’s such a challenge to think about applying this best possible self to people who don’t have a lot of, as much opportunity.

Serena Chen: Right. I mean it’s a really important topic. It’s something one of my graduate students and I are working on. I’m a big fan of Dafna Oyserman’s research in this area. She’s at USC. They’ve been looking at differences between minority children, often black students, and their white peers in possible selves and the implications of these possible selves for their academic achievement whether they finish high school, go to college and so forth. And so minority children are hoping to go to college, get a good job, just like their majority peers are. They want as high possible future selves as higher social class students.

But the difference is not so much where they want to go but how to get there, right? We know that people from more underrepresented minority lower social class background—there’s barriers. There’s pragmatic barriers like financial barriers, there’s knowledge barriers, they don’t have the support. First-generation students don’t have parents who know what it means to apply to college, right? So there’s absolutely concrete objective barriers like money and resources. And there’s also psychological barriers which could be more powerful I think and that barrier has to do with sort of feeling like actually becoming that future successful self is not consistent with your identity, you know, as a lower working-class person, or as an African-American in the United States, or as an immigrant, a child of an immigrant family or what have you.

You know, people really want to feel… this is that community thing again. I want to feel like I’m, you know, similar to my people, right? And yet that goal that I’m striving for, that possible self, may not be consistent, they may not even understand it. Their family might not understand that you want to become a professor someday, ‘What is that?’

Dacher Keltner: Not part of the family identity.

Serena Chen: It’s not part of the identity. It feels like you’re betraying, you know, your family, your background, right? So there’s that psychological barrier.

And so what Ozerman and her colleagues have done in actual school settings is come up with little ways to nudge people to see greater overlap. Minority children, for example, to see greater overlap between their social identities and these possible selves they’re aiming for. So they feel like they can go for it and they might even just, you know, provide information about financial aid strategies, right? And just concrete information like that can make a difference, can make people feel like, ‘Okay, I can try to pursue that possible self, it’s actually attainable.’

Dacher Keltner: So it’s creating a little bridge between their first self—

Serena Chen: A psychological bridge and then there’s the bridge of like, maybe planting in them the idea of financial aid or a particular concrete strategy is about how to get financial aid. I mean, just as a little personal example. I didn’t know what a Ph.D. was. This is not part of my background. I had no idea what it meant to be an academic and what I found out—honestly I remember that Ph.D. programs didn’t cost money and law school was not an option because it costs so much money. Wow. That little piece of pragmatic information, you know, was—it changed my life.

Dacher Keltner: Wow, that’s interesting. Well, Serena thanks so much for being on the Science of Happiness. It’s always great to talk to you about the self and all the imagination that’s intertwined with who we think we are. And it’s always revealing to hear about what you think about the self.

Serena Chen: It’s fun to be here.

Dacher Keltner: I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me for the Science of Happiness.

Produced by the Greater Good Science Center and PRI. Episode 8 of the Science of Happiness Podcast by the Greater Good Science Center, featuring Adizah Eghan and Serena Chen in conversation with Dacher Keltner.

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