Write Your Life Better

Many of us get stuck in our ruts and move through the routines of our lives without giving much thought to what we could be. But what if we actually took a bit of time to deeply imagine and write about our best possible future selves? It could be life-changing.

Much of the research into expressive writing—writing that simply expresses what is in our hearts and on our minds—asks people to write about a traumatic experience or an emotional upheaval. As it turns out, this model as created by Dr. James Pennebaker is a therapeutic exercise. Many of the writers in about 300 studies since the mid-1980s have experienced better physical and emotional health, along with other benefits.

However, Dr. Laura King wondered if it was necessary to write about something painful to receive the benefits. So she and her colleagues conducted studies in which they asked people to write about positive experiences instead. Many of these people also experienced positive outcomes, such as a boost in psychological well-being, improved overall performance, significantly more happiness, and in some instances, even better health.

One of her exercises is called the Best Possible Future Self. She asked people to write for twenty minutes for three days in a row, using these 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.”

One thing I add to this exercise is to choose a future date when you want to be living as your best possible self and write that date on your journal entry. Then write in present tense, as if you are already living this life. Write in the style of “I am doing this” instead of “I will do this.” Using present tense for a future event helps you to move toward your goals by making them more real to your brain.

If you like, you can begin by sitting quietly for a few minutes, eyes closed, and letting your best possible future blossom in your imagination. Then pick up your pen and go!

For the best results, do this exercise on the next two days too. You will learn more about yourself and your priorities. You might also better understand your motives and emotional reactions, along with gaining a feeling of more control over your life. All of which will enhance your Living, Breathing Story.

Gratitude and 1000 Things

I recently spoke at the local Unitarian Universalist church about gratitude and gratitude journaling. This is one of my favorite subjects because people generally feel good after writing about something for which they are grateful. And I love it because I can include a little of the fascinating information that research has discovered about gratitude. People might be a little more encouraged to be grateful when they know that an ongoing practice of sincere gratitude can help lower their blood pressure and strengthen their immune system, help them feel more optimistic and less depressed, and also block toxic emotions, among other benefits.

But this time, I wanted to do something a little different, so I created an experiment for myself. A week before my talk, I decided to see if I could write a really long list of things I am grateful for. One journaling technique I often use and include in some of my programs is a List of 100. This can be a list of 100 anythings, like things that stress me out, things I want to do before I die, or, yes, even things that I am grateful for. The idea is to go as fast as you can, write one word or short phrase, and you can repeat.

But listing only 100 things I am grateful for is way too easy. I could do that, and probably not repeat myself, in about 20 or 30 minutes. So I chose to write a list of 1,000 things I am grateful for. I figured I could do 100 a day. But midweek, I realized I didn’t have 10 days, and I was going to be gone all of Saturday, the day before my talk. So, on Friday, I listed about 350, and then finished up with the last 20 on Sunday morning before leaving for the church. Some of the items are repeats, but not many.

Some are profound, including Ken and all the love and support he gives me, my good health, my parents and siblings, my work, waking up every day for nearly 66 years, and even “all the events over all of history that led to me being alive and writing my list.” Others were much less profound, like canned beans (we love them and I hate cooking beans from scratch), pens and paper, ceiling fans, and nonstick pots and pans. In between were clean hot and cold running water, the autumn colors on the trees, and wine. And yes, chocolate was there, too. I am grateful to one degree or another for everything on my list. Plus, the act of listing them opened my eyes to so many things I take for granted but without which my life would not be so happy, satisfying, and easy in many ways.

I gave my talk and at the end asked people to write down 10 things they are grateful for. Most of them had no problem with that. Then I revealed my list of 1000 and asked them to write “990 more things I am grateful for” under their 10 and invited them to try it sometime. I said they could write it in chunks over time but to keep going until they reached 1000, including repeats. I don’t know if anyone at the church will respond to my invitation but hope they do.

I added one more research tidbit about gratitude in my talk: Gratitude can actually change your brain in positive ways. When you start actively cultivating gratitude, your brain will encourage you to keep looking for more things for which to be grateful. That’s because gratitude activates brain regions associated with dopamine, the “reward” neurotransmitter. Dopamine is important in initiating action, which makes you more likely to do the same thing again because it makes you feel good. So once you start seeing things to be grateful for, your brain starts looking for even more things to be grateful for, which creates a positive cycle, which can change your life in a beneficial direction.

I invite you to write your own list of 1000 things you are grateful for. If you think about it, over the course of your entire life, there would be way more than a mere 1000. With enough time and determination, you can hit that number even before Thanksgiving.

One of these days, I will do this exercise again. By then, there will be even more things I can be grateful for. Probably even 1000 more.