Think positive; or maybe don't

“Think positive” was my motto when I was in high school and my my most hated expression some years after college. Seasons change for sure, but what has since remained quite the same is my slight aversion for excessive positive thinking. Let me be clear; I do not hate all positive thinking, I just hate it when it’s unrealistic. And now, to my amazement, research shows it might not even help you as much as you’d expect. Thank you research. For once, I like you.

Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, and her colleagues have conducted studies that:

Fantasizing about happy outcomes — about smoothly attaining your wishes — didn’t help. Indeed, it hindered people from realizing their dreams. Why doesn’t positive thinking work the way you might assume? As my colleagues and I have discovered, 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.

A-ha! So you ought to find a balance between energetic pursuit of your dreams, with a spoon of positive thinking and two cups of realism. Realism, is not the same as negative thinking, and I feel the need to underline this, because some people might think it means so. Gabriele Oettingen writes:

Some critics of positive thinking have advised people to discard all happy talk and “get real” by dwelling on the challenges or obstacles. But this is too extreme a correction. Studies have shown that this strategy doesn’t work any better than entertaining positive fantasies.

What does work better is a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with “realism.” Here’s how it works. 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.

This simple process, which my colleagues and I call “mental contrasting,” has produced powerful results in laboratory experiments. When participants have performed mental contrasting with reasonable, potentially attainable wishes, they have come away more energized and achieved better results compared with participants who either positively fantasized or dwelt on the obstacles.

When participants have performed mental contrasting with wishes that are not reasonable or attainable, they have disengaged more from these wishes. Mental contrasting spurs us on when it makes sense to pursue a wish, and lets us abandon wishes more readily when it doesn’t, so that we can go after other, more reasonable ambitions.

“Reasonable ambitions” sounds plausible! One can always dream for world peace though :p

photo from google