by Allison Aboud Holzer

Two important things help us achieve our goals: letting go of past mistakes and envisioning future success. Psychology research supports that expressive writing about one’s goals has numerous benefits for health, emotional adjustment, resiliency, motivation, and well-being (Smyth, 1998), while also increasing the likelihood that the goals will be achieved. How does expressive writing help people let go of emotional baggage and take hold of a more empowering future?

First, something about the writing process helps us organize our thoughts in new ways and frameworks. We begin to create new narratives for our pasts and our futures. Taking ownership of our stories makes us feel more in control, benefiting our resiliency and self-esteem. Second, writing about our “most cherished” selves captures our values and our priorities, and helps us gain insights about how we can use these qualities into future endeavors. We begin to feel less conflicted about our goals as we gain a better understanding of our true motivations and feelings (King, 2001; Pennebaker, 1998). Finally, imagining future success can boost psychological well-being and motivation, improving the likelihood of achieving the goal (King, 2001; Pham & Taylor, 1999).

Psychologist Laura King studies two specific types of beneficial, expressive writing assignments: “best possible selves” and “lost possible selves.” For this Bliss Tip, try out each one of these two writing assignments:

  1. Lost Possible Selves: Write for 20 minutes at a time about different experiences for 3 days in a row. Here are your specific instructions: “Think about a goal in your life that was once very important to you; but, due to life circumstances, you can no longer achieve this goal. If only you had been able to achieve this goal of your past, what would your life have looked like? Now, write about what you imagined.”
  2. Best Possible Selves: Write for 20 minutes at a time about different experiences  for 3 days in a row. Here are your specific 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 realization of all of your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.”

The Best Possible Selves sound fun, but why write about regrets? Writing about past mistakes and goals that no longer make sense for our lives can help us come to terms with them and replace regret with resolve.

  • King, L. A. (2007). The Science of Psychology: An Appreciative View. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
  • King, L. (2001). The Health Benefits of Writing about Life Goals, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27 (7), 798 – 807.
  • King, L. (2004). Lost and Found Possible Selves, Subjective Well-Being, and Ego Development in Divorced Women. Journal of Personality, 72 (3), 603-632.
  • King, L.A., Hicks, J.A. (2007) Whatever happened to “What might have been”? Regrets, happiness, and maturity. American Psychologist 62(7), 625-636.
  • Pennebaker, J.W., et al (1988). Disclosure of traumas and immune function: health implications for psychotherapy. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 2, 239-245.
  • Pham, L.B. & Taylor, S.E. (1999). From Thought to Action: Effects of Process-Versus Outcome-Based Mental Simulations on Performance . Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(2), 250-260
  • Smith, J.M. (1998). Written Emotional Expression: Effect Sizes, Outcome Types, and Moderating Variables. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66 (1), 174-184