This article was originally published on April 9, 2015.
Think positive and success will come.
The power of positive thinking is often heralded as the secret to success, or so says the famous book The Secret. Not so, says New York University psychologist Gabriele Oettingen. In her book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, Oettingen argues optimistic thinking can actually hamper your drive to succeed.
“Thinking positively needs to be looked at a more sophisticated way rather than just think positive and everything in your life will be repaired,” says Oettingen. In fact, she argues when it comes to achieving the goals that really matter to you, having a rosy outlook can do more harm than good.
In one study, Oettingen randomly assigned a group of undergraduate students to two groups. The first group was asked to fantasize about getting good grades, attending great parties and think positively about everything that would occur in that upcoming week. Students in the second group were asked to record their thoughts and daydreams about the upcoming week, whether they were good or bad. Surprisingly, the students who were told to think positively accomplished less than those in the second group who had taken a more realistic approach.
In another study, a group of obese participants who fantasized about losing weight lost 24 pounds less than those who didn’t approach the task with such rosy glasses.
Blind optimism, it turns out, isn’t as motivating as previously thought. Why?
Positive thinking produces a physiological response – lowering our blood pressure – which Oettingen says drains us of motivation. This state of relaxation can breed complacency. Fantasizing or daydreaming about something we want tricks our minds into thinking that we’ve already accomplished it and therefore lowers our energy and motivation that we require in order to actually achieve it. “By feeling you’re already there, you relax and your energy goes down,” says Oettingen.
While Oettingen says this doesn’t mean we have to think negatively all the time, the problem occurs when we only fantasize about a goal that we want to achieve. Only thinking positively about the goal becoming reality doesn’t provide us with the energy and effort required to realize these goals.
In order to do this, Oettingen developed a technique called “mental contrasting,” an approach that incorporates a sense of reality, helping people to gain insight into their wishes and identify the obstacles that stand in the way of their realization. The strategy is outlined by the acronym WOOP (which stands for wish, outcome, obstacle, plan).
Wish: Go ahead and have that fantasy in order to identify your wants.
Outcome: Imagine the outcome, allowing yourself to experience attaining your desired wish.
Obstacle: Identify what stands in your way of fulfilling the wish and experiencing that desired outcome.
Plan: Put an execution plan in place, taking into account how you will overcome the obstacles you’ve identified.
This process of mental contrasting not only roots your dreams in reality, it can help you to prioritize projects. Oettingen says sometimes people imagine a goal but after thinking about all of the obstacles, they realize it’s not really feasible and they may postpone it to another time, readjust the goal, or make it less vague. This process helps save time and energy daydreaming of an unreasonable goal you can’t possibly attain.
Related: The Bright Side of Negative Thinking