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The Power of Imagination in Achieving Your Goals

Clear, detailed, vivid and positive mental simulations are linked to well-being.

Key points

  • Goal setting and pursuit are linked to well-being.
  • Goal-directed simulations may also relate to well-being
  • Goals that are more attainable and under control predict greater well-being and fewer depressive symptoms.
  • Positive, clear, goal-directed simulations strongly predicted well-being at a two-month follow-up.

Goal setting and pursuit, both of which are linked to mental health and future success, involve the capacity for future-oriented thinking. Another way to use this capacity is by engaging in mental simulations, by imagining a future event or state, and the way to get there. The two are not mutually exclusive and can work in concert. We may be more able to achieve a goal if we mentally simulate (imagine) how to get there and how great it would be to achieve it.

Mental simulations--a uniquely human capacity to move forward (and backward) in time--have also been shown experimentally to relate to people's mood, sense of meaning in life, and even exercise behavior. Yet many simulation studies require participants to imagine non-personal future events, rather than having them focus on personally relevant goals. As a result, we know little about how mental simulations of personally important goals may relate to well-being.

A recent (2021) study by Australian psychologist Beau Gamble and colleagues sought to address this gap. The authors recruited 153 Australian adults (98 females) for a set of interview sessions and collected data on participants' demographics, well-being, mood, and cognitive abilities. In addition, they asked participants to think of goals they wanted to achieve in their life over three time periods (short-, medium-, long-term), after which the participants were asked to choose the two most important of those goals. (The process was repeated for medium- and then long-term goals).

Participants were then presented with questions about each of their six chosen goals, and the goals were later scored on additional six variables (goal specificity, life domain, whether the goals were intrinsically or extrinsically focused, whether goals and motives were approach or avoidance, and whether motives were autonomous or controlled) by a trained research assistant, blind to study hypotheses and the identity of participants.

RosZie for Pixabay
Source: RosZie for Pixabay

In the simulation phase, “participants were presented with each of their six important goals in random order and given three minutes to imagine and verbally describe a specific future scene or scenes in their life, related to that goal.” After each simulation, participants answered questions about the simulation, related to valance (positivity/negativity), vividness, detail, clarity, fragmentation, and perspective (first vs. third person). Transcriptions were later assessed for the degree to which the simulation was focused on the process or outcome of the goal.

Two months after the initial interviews, participants completed a brief follow-up survey examining their levels of well-being and mood and any progress they had made on each of the six chosen goals. This allowed the researchers to assess changes in participants' well-being between the time of the study (T1) and the follow up (T2).

The central findings revealed strong positive correlations between goal attainability and sense of control and well-being. as well as between the degree to which goals were central to participants’ identity and well-being. Goal attainability and sense of control correlated negatively with depressive symptoms. (Depressive symptoms positively correlated with perceived goal difficulty.) Self-reported goal clarity, detail, vividness, and positivity correlated positively with well-being and negatively with depressive symptoms. Those who scored higher on goal clarity “tended to report making greater progress in their goals over time.”

Further analysis found that “In general, higher attainability and importance of goals, and higher clarity and lower negativity of simulations at T1, were strongly associated with higher well-being, lower depressive symptoms, and greater goal progress at T2.”

Specifically, “lower negativity (and higher positivity) of goal simulations was predictive of well-being at T2, even after controlling for well-being at T1, and together these variables accounted for 73% of the variance in T2 well-being.”

The results overall suggest, as expected, strong links between some aspects of goal setting and pursuit and well-being. “Some of the strongest links with mental health were higher perceived attainability, sense of control, and lower expected difficulty in achieving one’s goals.” Perceived goal attainability was the strongest predictor of goal progress.

Regarding goal-directed simulations, “emotional valence of simulations also appears to be particularly important in the context of predicting mental health over time. As predicted, higher well-being and lower depressive symptoms were correlated with greater clarity, vividness, and detail.”

In sum, the study linked more attainable, under control, emotionally positive goals to higher well-being and lower depressive symptoms. In addition, clearer, more detailed, more positive, and less negative goal-directed simulations also predicted higher well-being and less depression. Finally, positive goal-directed simulations strongly predicted well-being at a two-month follow-up. The authors conclude: “These findings underscore the relevance of goal-directed imagination to well-being and depressive symptoms, and highlight potential targets for goal- and imagery-based interventions to improve mental health.”

More data from larger, more diverse samples are needed, and the study's correlational design precludes us from reaching conclusions about causality. Yet the study provides suggestive evidence to the possibility that our mental health may benefit from a practice of periodically taking time to imagine pursuing and achieving important, attainable, and positive future goals in clear and vivid detail.

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