I used to think vision boards — those pieces of poster board plastered with aspirational words and images — were silly, until I made one. Now, our family vision board hangs in the hallway, where we walk past it several times a day. I don’t stop to look at it very often, but it's always in the corner of my eye, literally and figuratively.

We made the vision board in early January. Fast forward six months, and some of our “visions” for 2020 — a trip to South Africa, for example — have gone up in smoke because of the worldwide pandemic. But even after months of lockdown, a lot of good items remain on the board: reasonable, obtainable goals, motivating ideas and ideals for what we want our lives to look like. In a year when so many lives are in a holding pattern, I wondered, could vision boards help propel us past the pandemic and toward a brighter future? The answer seems to be yes, if we’re using them in the right way.   

Manifesting, or abdicating?

Vision boards, sometimes referred to as dream boards, rose in popularity in the 2000s, thanks to the enormous success of Rhonda Byrne’s self-help book “The Secret.” Byrne introduced the Law of Attraction to the masses — the belief that health, wealth and happiness can come from positive thinking and envisioning yourself already there. Vision boards are a tool in the journey of manifesting those goals — add photos, clippings and inspirational words representing the things you want or want to achieve, and the universe will deliver. If you paste it, it will come.

Soon, an entire industry built up around the Law of Attraction and manifesting dreams. Oprah used a vision board to envision the Barack Obama presidency. People glued photos of Lamborghinis, stacks of cash and safaris in South Africa (cough) on their vision boards.

And they waited. And waited.

The problem with vision boards, many mental health professionals point out, is that too often, when people assign their dreams to a vision board, they stop doing the hard work to get what they want. I’ve asked the universe for a sports car this year, so somehow, one will come to me. By waiting for the universe to deliver the things they want and feel they deserve, people remove their own agency from the equation.

“As a therapist, I’ve seen a lot of people think that because they put things on their vision boards, those things were going to happen,” says Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and author of13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.” “They have no desire to put in any effort.” Morin, who has written critically of vision-boarding, says that “when you put an item on your vision board, your brain reacts as though you’ve already gotten it — you imagine yourself across the finish line.” The result is that vision boards can actually make us less motivated to strive to achieve our goals.

Another drawback to vision boards is that they can reinforce the idea that manifesting your dreams will solve all your problems. Research has found an association between depression and the belief that attaining a certain level of prestige or acquiring certain belongings will bring happiness, according to Marilyn Fitzpatrick, a counseling psychologist and professor emerita at McGill University.

“We don’t know for certain why we see these negative results in the research. But one idea is that when we compare ourselves to others, we stop focusing on who we are and what we can do, and focus on external, material goals.” So, if there’s a big bag of money on your vision board, not only are you less likely to do anything to acquire cash, you’re emotionally poorer for desiring it.

Looking ahead in a tough year

The pitfalls of material desire notwithstanding, Fitzpatrick and others agree that a vision board, when approached with the right attitude, can be part of a larger tool kit of emotional well-being — especially now, when many of us could use a dose of positivity. “How we think about our future and how we envision our lives has a profound influence on our current state of mind,” Fitzpatrick says, and can help us think past the pandemic. Visually oriented people, in particular, might benefit from a vision board. “For some people it’s a song or a poem,” she says. “But for people for whom images are interesting, the creative process of making a vision board can help them instantiate their goals and values.”

But, she adds, because we may be living in a state of flux for quite some time, it may be hard to stay motivated by focusing only on the future. “A vision board should reflect not just where we want to be in 10 years or two years, but where we want to be right now,” she says. And while you may want to be on a tropical beach, your goals for the present should be grounded in reality. In the context of covid-19, that might mean using images that reflect what you want your interactions with others to look like, whether it’s playing with the kids or helping an elderly neighbor with a grocery delivery.

Morin says that adding images of events you know are going to happen to the board can bring a sense of satisfaction as well. “I’m a big fan of pleasant activity scheduling,” she says. So, if you know that when lockdown restrictions ease, you’re going to have lunch with friends, add it to your vision board. This “provides a mood boost by giving you something concrete to look forward to,” Morin says.

If you’ve already made a vision board this year, it might be time to revisit it, as I discovered. “I made one in December,” says Nitika Chopra, a wellness advocate and founder of Chronicon.co, an online community for individuals with chronic illnesses. “And every day during the pandemic, I’ve looked at it and said, ‘What the hell?’ The external things I added to my vision board, they’re no longer really a part of this year — they may not be part of the next several years.”

Ideas, not things

If you do start a vision board, be mindful more of adding ideas than things. Chopra, who each year allows for one luxury item on her vision board, says even that feels superfluous right now. “We’re all wearing sweatpants! Who cares about a Chanel bag anymore?”

Viewing her board through the lens of the pandemic, Chopra says, was a reminder that vision boards “are really about creating visions for your internal state just as much as your external one. We’re often so externally focused, and that’s not what this moment is calling us to do.” For someone considering creating a vision board, she says, “it should be about your internal vision for your life: What do you want for yourself, for your body, for your mind-set?”

Whether the vision board you create is grounded in the present or future, it’s essential, experts say, that it be filled with images associated with action. For example, Morin says that instead of a photo that represents you in a perfect new job, you could add an image of your résumé to represent the job search. Instead of a 10-year-old photo of your skinny self, or even worse, a photo of a toned fitness model, add images of fitness equipment or of yourself working out.

By thinking through the steps and adding them to boards, Fitzpatrick says, you “give dignity and weight to what you’re doing today.”

Chopra points out that self-care steps don’t get much more basic than vision boards: All you need are glue, scissors, a piece of cardboard, and some words and images from magazines or printed off a computer. A vision board, she says, “is a gift to yourself to take your mind off the current despair, even for just an hour.” And it doesn’t have to come together all at once. If you work on the board over several days, it’s a chance to think about what you want from life. “It’s not about forcing yourself to be positive or forcing an outcome,” says Chopra, but rather “an invitation for some clarity” — something we’re all seeking in this moment.

As for that trip to South Africa? I think I’ll save a spot for it on our 2021 vision board.

Heath is an author, editor and travel writer based in central Italy. Her website is elizabethfheath.com .