“Think positive.” How many times has someone given you a variation of this advice?
It is the motto of the modern human, the product of our revitalized, even sensational, interest in the powers of positive thinking. And it is not horrible advice either. But is it all good?
“Positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we’ve already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it” -Gabriele Oettingen (2014).
Not even positive thinking remains “untouchable” in terms of caution. German psychologist Gabriele Oettingen is a professor at Hamburg University and New York University, and her research advises us to not worship positive thinking as the “cure-all” to our life.
If you are confused, continue reading. It’s true that research confirms how positive thinkers enjoy more benefits compared to their negative counterparts. Positive thinkers are more resilient to stress, recover more quickly from physical injury, and are less likely to have heart attacks during surgery (Carver & Scheier, 1993).
The reoccurring theme of optimism and self-love resonates through much of our art and culture. We hear it our favorite pop songs and we read it on the covers of self-help books that swarm the shelves each year. We are surrounded by the message to “be positive,” and often, it helps.
We just need to be aware of its limitations—and potentially—its problems.
This article contains:
The Shortcomings of Positive Thinking
In 1991, Gabrielle Oettingen and Thomas A. Wadden conducted a study where they parsed the two different kinds of positive thinking: expectation and fantasy.
How do these two kinds of positive thinking impact success?
In the study, the researchers recruited 25 obese women who are enrolled in a yearlong weight reduction program. At the beginning of the year, the women reported their expectations for how well they would perform.
Oettingen and Wadden scaled these expectations based on their relative positive or negative bias. Throughout the year, they gave the women a variety of scenarios to visualize. Some of these scenarios involved fantasies of successful weight loss, while others involved pessimistic visions of failure and cheating.
The women rated the level of how positive or negative their visions were—and the results of the study seemed counter-intuitive.
Oettingen and Wadden found that the women with more positive fantasies lost less weight than their negative counterparts. They also found that expectation and fantasy produced strikingly different effects.
Positive fantasy hindered weight loss, but positive expectation did the opposite. In 2011, Oettingen teamed up with Heather Kappes to find an explanation for this discrepancy.
Why did imagining a success differ than expecting it? We need to understand these two types of positive thinking first.
Fantasy and Expectation: Two Types of Positive Thinking
In 2011, these same researchers had two groups of college students write the tasks and events of the coming week.
Then, they asked one group to fantasize positively about the week. The other group was given no such direction; instead, they were asked to write down any relevant thoughts about the week.
Afterward, they asked both groups to rate their energy levels. As you might be able to guess, the group of ‘fantasizers’ reported lower energy levels. Not only that, but by the end of the week, they accomplished less. Why?
Oettingen (2014) concluded that “dreaming about the future calms you down, measurably reducing systolic blood pressure, but it also can drain you of the energy you need to take action in pursuit of your goals.”
While it may be good to “dream,” it does consume energy and does not always translate into the action needed to pursue goals. This is different than expecting success from yourself, which relates more to holding yourself accountable to your current pursuits.
Mental Contrasting: An Alternative to Positive Thinking
As an alternative, Oettingen and her colleagues suggest “mental contrasting.”
This is an approach to positive thinking which includes the components of the realism and pragmatism present in negative thinking. Here is how Oettingen (2014) explains it:
“Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.”
Studies have found this approach to be more effective than positive or negative thinking alone, perhaps because it offers a realistic reflection on why our goal may be difficult.
People who use mental contrasting exercise more, eat more vegetables, cultivate healthier relationships, and even recover from chronic back pain quicker (Stadler et al., 2009; Stadler et al., 2010; Houssais et al., 2013; Christiansen et al., 2010).
So how do we incorporate mental contrasting into our lives? Four steps can break this into bite-size segments. What goal do you want to begin with? Write it down and continue reading the WOOP acronym below.
WOOP: The 4 Steps of Mental Contrasting
Oettingen formalized the tenets of positive expectation with a hint of realism, making mental contrasting into a structured strategy for easy implementation, it is known as WOOP, the acronym for:
Make a wish and ensure it is challenging—but also realistic.
Identify the best possible consequences of this wish coming true and how that would make you feel. Savor it.
Identify the main obstacles within yourself, such emotions or habits that stand in the way of you fulfilling your wish. Do not shy away from them rather envision them as fully as you would your most favorable outcomes. For example, if you have a goal to train for a marathon or write a short story, what might stop you? Injuries? Lack of time? Writer’s block?
Create a specific plan for overcoming each obstacle that stands in your way of success. When you make this plan, try to be as specific, realistic and practical as possible.
You can refer to our article about goal-setting, which refers to why goals need to be S.M.A.R.T., or specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound.
A Take Home Message
This article is not about abandoning all positive thought.
Rather, it is about understanding that positive thinking is not the best solution to success and achieving our goals. Too much positive dreaming actually hinders ourselves by neglecting action if we only fantasize.
There are distinct facets of negative thinking that may be more productive in helping us fulfill our wishes than we think. It is important, then, that we complement our expectations with the realistic, sometimes negative, mindfulness of the obstacles we face.
Mental contrasting, where we review obstacles, offers a more holistic way of fulfilling our wishes and reaching our goals.
Now it’s your turn to shine, what are you dreaming of and how do you plan to overcome the obstacles that stand in your way? We would love to hear your story in the comment box below.
Want More on Mental Contrasting?
If you’d like to learn more, you can get started with Gabriele Oettingen’s article featured in The New York Times. Oettingen has also written a book called, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.
If you’d like to learn more about how to implement WOOP, you can read about it on the official WOOP website. For a closer look at the research behind mental contrasting, here is a list of publications.
Christiansen, S., Oettingen, G., Dahme, B., & Klinger, R. (2010). A short goal-pursuit intervention to improve physical capacity: A randomized clinical trial in chronic back pain patients. Pain, 149(3), 444-452. doi:10.1016/j.pain.2009.12.015
Get up and WOOP. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://woopmylife.org/new-page-3/
Houssais, S., Oettingen, G., & Mayer, D. (2012). Using mental contrasting with implementation intentions to self-regulate insecurity-based behaviors in relationships. Motivation and Emotion, 37(2), 224-233. doi:10.1007/s11031-012-9307-4
Kappes, H. B., & Oettingen, G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(4), 719-729. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2011.02.003
Oettingen, G., & Wadden, T. A. (1991). Expectation, fantasy, and weight loss: Is the impact of positive thinking always positive? Cognitive Therapy and Research, 15(2), 167-175. doi:10.1007/bf01173206
Oettingen, G. (2014, October 24). The Problem With Positive Thinking – The New York Times. Retrieved November 3, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/26/opinion/sunday/the-problem-with-positive-thinking.html
Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1993, February). On the Power of Positive Thinking: The Benefits of Being Optimistic. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2(1), 26-30. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.ep10770572
Stadler, G., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. (2011, July). Physical Activity in Women : Effects of a Self-Regulation Intervention. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 36(1).
Stadler, G., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2010). Intervention effects of information and self-regulation on eating fruits and vegetables over two years. Health Psychology, 29(3), 274-283. doi:10.1037/a0018644