As long as I can remember I have been using visualization as a way to see where I want to go and how I am going to get there. As a young gymnast I would look at the uneven bars even before I chalked up my hands and saw myself twirling up to the high bar, suspended and landing firmly, feet planted squarely on the mat landing upright. Triumphant even before I began and of course after much training. The visualization helped me see the process and how my body would move effortlessly and gracefully. I used this process when I embarked on my entrepreneurial path of developing my business Mobile Moms. I visualized how the product would be designed, developed and produced. I visualized any obstacles I saw along my path and how I would get around them. Little did I know I was using Rick Snyder’s Hope Theory! I used visualization with my children as they were growing up and going to bed at night. I would have them visualize a calm beautiful place where they felt safe and could rest with ease.

I would like you, right now, to close your eyes and visualize yourself in a place – imaginary or real – that brings you feelings of confidence and calm. Over the next few weeks develop this visualization by adding as many details as you can. What sounds do you here? Do you smell anything or feel anything that can make the experience more vivid for you? You can use this visualization to help you feel more confident and calm as you move through your days.

Visualization is a very powerful tool. Recent research in cognitive neuroscience suggests that areas of the brain are activated when visualizing something that resembles the real thing. Visualizing an event or experience can seriously influence how we handle the real thing. Athletes do this all the time, as do I. Rather than allowing the brain to ruminate on negative images which can cause anxiety and depression try visualizing a positive experience.

Research by Shelley Taylor of UCLA and her colleagues suggest that visualization can affect you positively by enhancing positive emotion, assist in problem solving, and increase the perception that the event might happen. Imagination alone however is not enough.

A PsyBlog article refers to research on imagining the processes involved in reaching a goal, rather than just the end-state of achieving it. UCLA researchers Lien B. Pham and Shelley E. Taylor had students “either visualize their ultimate goal of doing well in an exam or the steps they would take to reach that goal, such as studying.”

The results were clear, says the article.

“Participants who visualized themselves reading and gaining the required skills and knowledge, spent longer actually studying and got better grades in the exam. (Interestingly, though, the relationship generally found between time spent studying and good grades is surprisingly weak.) There were two reasons that visualizing the process worked: Planning: visualizing the process helped focus attention on the steps needed to reach the goal. Emotion: process visualization led to reduced anxiety.”

Shakti Gawain, author of Creative Visualization, and Wayne Dyer, author of The Power of Intention are two other authors who suggest the power of visualization. These are interesting books that have been on my bookshelf for decades before the research supported it with science!

I often tell my clients and workshop participants to engage in the journal exercise by Psychologist Laura King who has conducted research on the benefits of what she terms Best Possible Self journaling. Her instructions to participants read:

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 your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.

When you journal and think about where you want to be in ten, twenty or more years you get a chance to truly consider what you value most in your life. It gives you pause to think honestly and deeply about what your priorities are. We don’t do this often enough.

Spending time with King’s journaling exercise to become clear about what we value and then using visualization techniques to help us realize those values could potentially be a powerful approach towards happiness.

I no longer do the uneven bars but I do use visualization to accomplish many things in my life by seeing the process involved, what I need to do to get to my goal, any obstacles I might encounter, and the action needed. Or, I use it just to visualize a beautiful, calm place that can relax my brain, move it from worry to calm, adding another tool in my tool box towards well-being. Would love to hear how visualizing works for you.