Can thinking positively really help you change your life for the better? Many psychologists believe so, but studies by psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen indicate that the “power of positive thinking” has its limits and may actually inhibit success. In this detailed analysis, Oettingen offers persuasive evidence revealing why good thoughts alone won’t help you accomplish your goals, and she examines what strategies will help you make progress. getAbstract recommends this article to those struggling to move forward on important life and career goals.
Popular psychologists often claim positive thinking will help you accomplish your goals, but empirical studies reveal the impact of positive thought is more complex than many self-help gurus suggest. Positive thinking can, indeed, give you a short-term mood boost. But, ironically, the same good feelings that fantasizing about positive outcomes generates can actually inhibit your ability to achieve goals in real life. The reason for this is that positive thinking can trick your brain into feeling like you have already succeeded, thereby sapping you of the motivation necessary to work hard enough to realize your dreams.
“Positive thinking impedes performance because it relaxes us and drains the energy we need to take action.”
Studies of the correlation between positive thinking and performance also show a link between positive thinking and depression. As one series of studies revealed, the more students fantasized about positive outcomes for work and school-related scenarios, the more depressed they became in the long term. This increase in depression is understandable when you consider that positive thinking may lead to decreased effort. A student’s lack of effort could then result in poorer performance at school, thereby deepening his or her depression.
“If we could ground positive fantasies in reality, perhaps we could negate the soothing, lulling quality of these fantasies and stir people to action.”
Is positive thinking all bad, then? No. But in order to harness the true power of positive thinking, it’s necessary to pair fantasies about good outcomes with thoughts about the challenges which stand in the way of accomplishing a goal. Ultimately, this “mental contrasting” centers on “ground[ing] positive fantasies in reality” – that is, helping you discern whether your goals are attainable. If a goal is attainable, thinking about both obstacles and good outcomes can inspire greater effort. If a goal is unrealistic, mental contrasting can help you to “detach” and move on from the fantasy more quickly.
“People with realistic goals apply more effort and perform better, and people with unrealistic goals pull back.”
The four-part mental exercise “Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan” (WOOP) can lead you through the contrasting process and help you take actionable steps afterward. To WOOP, follow four steps: 1) Identify your wish; 2) think about positive outcomes; 3) think about the obstacles that could arise; 4) come up with plans to deal with the obstacles, structured as “if/then” statements – for example, “If X happens, I will do Y.” In one study of people experiencing depression, the WOOP technique helped 80% of the participants reach a predetermined, personal goal. In the trial’s control group, only 30% of people achieved what they wanted.