Why You Should Map Your Mental World

UPDATED: March 10, 2016
PUBLISHED: March 10, 2016

While working as a teaching fellow for one of my psychology professors at Harvard University, I often conducted an insightful experiment called mental mapping in which students created a map of the world around them. The experiment was simple—students had three minutes to draw a map of Harvard Yard and Harvard Square.

Although the maps students drew differed, the basic result was the same: The students always drew the most important piece of their world at the center of the map. If the student loved hanging out in his dorm, he placed it right in the middle. If the student frequented the same pub every night, you can guess what building appeared smack dab in the center of his map.

Related: Don’t Let Your Blind Spots Distort Reality

Even more fascinating was the areas of campus that were clearly not at the center of the students’ emotional universes. On the less-studious students’ maps, the largest university library in the world was minuscule or even absent. And not a single student drew any of the non-student housing around Harvard Square.

The things that matter most to us loom large and center, while the less important things are small and peripheral, if included at all. Although it’s wise to set goals and chart paths based on things that hold meaning to us, sometimes—such as those Harvard students who never set foot in the library—we may fail to assign meaning to significant things. By focusing on the seemingly unimportant parts of our world, we can make improvements in areas where we might be lacking.

What you don’t map can be as essential as what you do. Could you be missing important markers that may help you navigate your path to success? If so, take time to map your mental world and have someone else point out the important things that might be missing.

Related: John Addison: How to Find Your ‘Why’ in Life


This article appears in the April 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

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.