Pitfalls of Positive Thinking and How to Overcome Them
Do you count on the help of positive thinking to fulfill your wishes? We often get this advice: Wish it, will it, then you will get it! The reality, however, is more complicated.
It’s true that our positive dreams and fantasies about the future sometimes help us explore various possibilities. Positive thinking may also put us in a good mood, at least for a moment. But when it comes to achieving our goals, positive thinking can spoil our chances and leave us subdued and stuck. If we want to reach our goals, we must complement positive thinking with a healthy dose of reality. We need to visualize the obstacles that might stand in our way.
Why does positive thinking harm our success? Two decades of research have shown that positive future thinking by itself seduces people into feeling like they have accomplished their goals, and it saps the energy needed to accomplish our desires. Thus, positive future fantasies both reduce the effort we direct at achieving our goals and lower the likelihood that we will actually achieve them. These findings apply to people of all ages, and they apply to many different kinds of goals, including interpersonal, health, academic, and professional goals.
For example, college students who fantasized positively about someone they had a crush on were then less likely to start the desired romantic relationship. Likewise, those who visualized excelling on an exam got worse grades. Finally, the more that hip replacement patients fantasized about a quick recovery, the less well they recuperated after surgery as judged by their physical therapists. In general, the more people ”think positive” and imagine themselves achieving their goals, the less they actually seem to achieve them.
Positive thinking can also affect people’s mental health in surprising ways. Thinking positively about the future makes people feel good in the moment but predicts greater depression over time because people often don’t end up meeting their long-term goals. By envisioning an idealized future, people do not prepare themselves for the potential hardships on the way to achieving that desired future. Reality catches up to them.
Does this mean that you should never look on the bright side? No; look at the bright side! However, you must combine thinking about your positive future dreams with visualizing the likely obstacles in your way. Future fantasies will give you the direction. Visualizing your obstacles provides the energy so that you will be prepared to tackle and overcome your obstacles on the way. Such mental contrasting of the desired future and the obstacle standing in its way has been found to spur effort and success across age and life domains. When they combined positive thinking with a visualization of possible obstacles, students excelled in language and mathematics, and adults excelled in areas as diverse as business negotiations, effective decision making, fighting cigarette habits, exercising more, taking responsibility, and giving help to others in need.
Mental contrasting also helps people set priorities. When obstacles are surmountable, people pursue their desired future goals full force. When obstacles are formidable, however, people either adjust their desire or let it go—in order to invest their energy into more promising endeavors.
Why does mental contrasting—thinking positively about the desired future while also focusing on the obstacles ahead—work so well? The technique helps us change our behavior in subtle, nonconscious ways, without even realizing it. Specifically, mental contrasting builds strong mental links between the future and obstacles and between obstacles and the means to surmount them. It allows us to better recognize the obstacles in our path and it energizes us. Finally, contrasting helps us use setbacks as valuable information that helps us pursue our goals. All these non-conscious processes triggered by mental contrasting then predict the exerted behavior change.
When our obstacles are particularly challenging (such as when they are strong impulses or bad habits), mental contrasting can be combined with if-then plans or implementation intentions discovered by Peter Gollwitzer. The combined exercise is called WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan). The first three steps of WOOP involve mental contrasting. WOO means finding a central Wish, and then identifying and visualizing both the desired Outcome and the Obstacle. The final step, the Plan, is the implementation intention part. The WOOP exercise is short, requiring as little as five minutes to complete. It can be done anywhere—at home, at work, in a crowded subway. Learning the skill of WOOP helped children and adults to obtain clarity and get more involved in life. Many intervention studies show that WOOP helps children excel in school, patients manage their health conditions (such as stroke, back pain, schizophrenia), and stressed health care providers get engaged again in their work. WOOP reduced substance abuse and attenuated weight problems.
Try WOOP! Let WOOP unfold its nonconscious magic. You’ll likely see yourself making progress in many areas of your life. And the more you practice WOOP, the easier it will become. WOOP isn’t a miracle cure for reaching success, but it will surely help. You will understand which wishes are important for you and what is stopping you from living the life you want. Before you know it, you will be well on your way to achieving your goals—just by asking yourself: What is my dearest wish? And what holds me back from achieving it?
Learn how to use and apply WOOP, see http://www.woopmylife.org and the WOOP app.
For Future Reading
Oettingen, G. & Sevincer, A. T. (2018). Fantasy about the future as friend and foe. In G. Oettingen, A. T. Sevincer, & P. M. Gollwitzer (Eds.), The psychology of thinking about the future (pp. 127–149). New York, NY: Guilford.
Gollwitzer, A., & Oettingen, G. (2019). Paradoxical knowing: A shortcut to knowledge and its antisocial correlates. Social Psychology, 50(3), 145. doi:10.1027/1864-9335/a000368
Gabriele Oettingen is a professor of psychology at New York University who studies thinking about the future and the control of cognition, emotion, and behavior. Her work on the perils of positive thinking and on mental contrasting is published in social and personality psychology, developmental and educational psychology, in health and clinical psychology, in organizational and consumer psychology, as well as in neuropsychological and medical journals. In her recent work, Gabriele Oettingen analyzes a phenomenon she calls paradoxical knowing, which is a short-cut to knowledge leading to antisocial and extreme behavior.
Her first trade book, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation has been published by Current, an imprint of Penguin Random House, in October 2014 (for more information, see www.woopmylife.org).