The Power of Visualization

UPDATED: May 22, 2024
PUBLISHED: October 10, 2019

If you’re a very literal-minded or pragmatic person, you might have a healthy dose of skepticism about the power of visualization. And indeed there are many who are not wrong in believing that visualizing success often amounts to little more than a lazy substitute for actually doing something to make that success happen.

But visualization is about much more than just sitting back and imagining that good things will happen. There is actually a huge body of research suggesting that mental imagery can dramatically impact our actions.

Related: Why You Should Make Visualization a Daily Practice

New research coming out of Oxford and Cambridge, for example, suggests that your ability to vividly imagine details about a bright future dramatically increases your energy and momentum, which leads, in turn, to constructive action. When our mind’s eye can picture exactly what that bright future looks like, it can orient itself in the direction of what we envision.

This is largely because the more vividly we can picture something, the more attainable it feels. Research has found that if you visualize making a shot in sports, for example, your likelihood of making it goes slightly up. More significant is that if you visualize waking up at 5 a.m. to practice, visualize working on your form, and visualize the feel of the ball in your hands right before it leaves for the basket, your likelihood of making the shot rises even more.

Similarly, I have found that when people with a fear of public speaking vividly visualize themselves from a third-person view (such as that of an audience member) speaking competently and confidently, anxiety drops dramatically, resulting in a more effective delivery.

New York University researcher Tali Sharot and her colleagues published a study in one of the most prestigious academic journals, Nature, that revealed that the more detailed our visualization, the more we actually begin to feel the specific emotions of the future state at the neural level. By envisioning the joy we’d feel upon getting a promotion, for example, we actually get to “pre-experience” that joy now. And that, in turn, provides us with the motivation and direction we need to make that future happen. Vivid pictures are like magnets pulling us toward a better future.

The more vivid your visualization, the more real it feels. And research shows the more real it feels, the more likely it will be to impact our behavior. Only once we recognize this can we begin to move from a vicious cycle where our mental images feed our fear to a picture of the world that gives us power.

Related: How to Cultivate a Growth Mindset

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by GaudiLab / 

Shawn Achor is a Harvard-trained researcher and best-selling author of The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness. Get a daily dose of happy at Shawn's Facebook page.