Since at least the days of Dale Carnegie, sales coaches and motivational speakers have espoused the power of positive thinking. A cheery mindset will help you overcome objections, accomplish your goals and live happily ever after, the promise goes.
Alas, 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, writes psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen in Don’t Think Too Positive.
Paradoxically, whilst fantasizing about positive outcomes generates positive feelings, that same glow can hamper your ability to achieve goals in real life. The reason? Too much 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.” —Gabriele Oettingen
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 daydreamed 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.
The American basketball coach Bob Knight, an infamous curmudgeon, once authored a tome titled The Power of Negative Thinking, a guide to eliminating mistakes, gauging risk and preparing for the worst. Should we follow his example rather than Carnegie’s? Not necessarily. To harness the true power of positive thinking, it’s necessary to pair fantasies about good outcomes with thoughts about the challenges standing in the way of that goal.
This “mental contrasting” centers on combining fantasy with reality. If your 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.” —Gabriele Oettingen
To use contrasting in your own goal setting, Oettingen suggests a four-part mental exercise she calls “Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan” (which goes by the upbeat acronym of WOOP).
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.
Start WOOP-ing today!