Rethinking Positive thinking is about what you want out of life and how to achieve it.
The author, Gabrielle Oettingen, has been studying this topic for over twenty years and has an interesting and startling conclusion: that the obstacles that we believe get in our way from achieving our greatest goals can actually help us accomplish them faster.
Basically, her research shows that merely dreaming about the future makes it less likely that you’ll achieve your deepest desires and dreams.
Join me for the next 10 minutes as we explore why this is the case, what you should be doing, instead.
What Is Positive Thinking
Let’s start out at the beginning by defining what positive thinking actually is.
Martin Seligman – the founder of the positive psychology movement and the author of Authentic Happiness – defines positive thinking as beliefs or expectations about the future that are based on past success.
Notice the part about “based on past success,” which much of the literature on positive thinking wilfully ignores. You can’t just sit in your chair, think nice thoughts, and expect your dreams to become true. This sounds too obvious to mention, but many of the most popular books on positive thinking will teach you just that.
Seligman had performed plenty of studies that showed a direct correlation between positive expectations when the condition of past success was present.
That led Oettingen to conclude that there are two types of optimism worth studying – positive expectations based on past experiences of success and the more free-flowing thoughts that we might simply call desires.
So, Oettingen decided to test out that theory using a wish that a good portion of the population makes every year on or around New Year’s Eve: to lose weight.
She performed a study involving twenty-five overweight women who were enrolled in a weight loss program. She had some of them think about successfully completing the weight loss program and had others think about the struggles they would invariable face along the way.
Surprisingly (but not to us, since we already gave away the punch line in the introduction), the women who fantasised about their success lost on average twenty-four pounds less than the women who imagined their struggles.
This study was performed back in 1991 and nobody in the psychology community wanted to dive any further, because so much attention and effort in the general population focussed on the power of optimism.
Undaunted, Oettingen continued her deep dive into the subject and performed study after study that showed the same thing – that unwarranted optimism doesn’t help people achieve their goals – in fact, it gets in the way.
The Upside of Dreaming
As Oettingen points out, not all positive dreaming is bad. There are certain situations where it actually helps.
The first situation is when the tasks are simple. The simpler the task, the more your positive fantasising helps. Why? Simple tasks don’t present many obstacles from achieving them. If I fantasise about how good it will feel to finally clear out the garage, I can just get to work and get it done without much hassle.
The second situation where it helps is when you are waiting for some result that is out of your control. For instance, if you are waiting anxiously for some medical test results to come back, positive dreaming will help get you through that time in a much more peaceful and calm manner. Basically, you can use positive dreaming to relax.
The third situation it helps in is allowing you to explore potential wishes without requiring you to make a commitment. This is helpful when you are determining what you actually want – as long as you realise where the benefits start and stop.
The Downside of Dreaming
Now that we’ve covered the upsides, which are much less numerous than you might have hoped, let’s cover the downsides.
There are three main reasons.
The first is a consequence of one of the benefits we mentioned in the previous section – that you become relaxed when you fantasise about the future. That relaxation will help you get through a difficult or tedious set of circumstances, but it will not help you actually achieve the content of your fantasy. That’s because your mind is fooled into believing that you’ve actually accomplished it, and thus leaving you with less drive to actually make it happen. Bummer.
The second reason follows from the first – that positive fantasies make you especially unfit to handle hard tasks that require concerted effort. That’s because your fantasies rob you of the energy required to do difficult tasks.
The third and final reason is that your positive fantasies lock you into a cycle of dreaming, without ever exploring whether or not your dream is feasible – which, of course, would require more energy than you have right after the fantasy.
Luckily, it’s not all doom and gloom. Oettingen started looking for a better way to help people reach their goals and dreams and found it in what she calls Mental Contrasting.
It’s a fairly simple process – right after you have the positive fantasy about whatever you want to achieve, you immediately jump into visualising the challenges and obstacles that you’ll face in achieving it.
This would short-circuit the negative effects that your fantasy might otherwise have (relaxing you and sapping you of the energy you need), and get you into action on eliminating the obstacles.
So, she set about pulling together an experiment that would see if this hypothesis was true.
She brought together 168 female students at universities in Berlin, asked them all to think about a goal they wanted to achieve, to create a list of benefits of achieving the goal, and a list of obstacles they would face along the way.
Then she separated them into four groups:
- The first group thought first about the benefits of achieving the goal and then the obstacles they would face;
- The second group only thought about the benefits of achieving the goal;
- The third group only thought about the obstacles that got in their way; and
- The fourth group thought first about the obstacles they would face, and then the benefits of achieving the goal.
The results were in one sense disappointing, and in another sense very exciting.
The disappointing part was that only some of the people who used the mental contrasting method showed significant improvements energising towards accomplishing their goals.
The exciting part was that the people who showed the improvement were the people who actually believed they could do it. This means that the method only gets people energised towards accomplishing goals that have a high chance of success.
Why Mental Contrasting Works
Mental contrasting works for a number of reasons:
- It gets your unconscious brain working on your obstacles. What you do by using this method is create a link between your goal and the obstacles you think you’ll face.
- It gets your brain thinking about the behaviours required to overcome the obstacles. This means that when you think of your goal, you’ll also think of what you need to do in order to overcome them.
- You do a better job of processing negative feedback. When you expect there to be obstacles, they become less daunting – they are now just “one more thing” to overcome to achieve your goal.
While Oettingen was doing her research on mental contrasting, her husband, Peter Gollwitzer, was performing research on an equally fascinating topic called implementation intentions.
In it’s most basic form, an implementation intention is a plan detailing exactly how and exactly when you intend to take an action – in this case, how we plan to achieve our goals and overcome our obstacles.
There have been multiple studies in multiple fields that all confirm the same thing – that having an implementation intention significantly increases the odds of completing a task or reaching a goal.
The most famous study in the implementation intention literature focussed on exercise. In particular, three groups of people were asked to exercise at least once in the following week. At the outset, they were given different instructions:
- The first group was the control group and they were simply asked to exercise the following week.
- The second group was given a motivational speech highlighting the benefits of exercising and the dangers of not.
- The third group was asked to make an implementation intention – to tell the interviewer exactly where and when they would work out.
When the results came in, they found the following:
- In first group, 38% of people exercised.
- In the second group (the motivation group), 35% of people exercised.
- In the third group (the implementation intention group), 91% of people exercised.
Fascinating, right? Study after study has shown that our traditional thinking on the topic – that people simply needed more motivation – is simply not true.
Rather, if you determine exactly what you need to do and exactly when you will do it, the resulting improvement is dramatic.
WOOP: Putting It All Together
Excited by the findings in both mental contrasting and implementation intentions, Oettingen found that the combination of both of them together was even more powerful than either of them on their own.
The original name for this newly combined method was MCII – not a terribly catchy name. She found that when she explained the method using plain English, that it spelled out WOOP – not a real word, but much more catchy nonetheless.
WOOP stands for:
- W = Wish
- O = Outcome
- O = Obstacle
- P = Plan
Here’s how it works in practice, which is something you can do anytime you have a wish or a goal you want to accomplish.
First, grab a blank piece of paper. On it, write down your wish or goal in three to six words.
Second, identify what you believe the best possible outcome of achieving that goal will be. Try and keep it short – between three and six words is best.
Third, let your imagination lead the rest of the exercise by writing down every obstacle you think you’ll face on your way to achieving that goal.
Lastly, for each of the obstacles, write down one specific action you can take for overcoming them. Make it in the form of an implementation intention by naming the time and place you believe the obstacle will happen and what you will do when it does.
Then, get to work!
WOOP is a powerful process you can use get better at achieving your hopes and dreams.
The benefits are many, including the fact that it will force you to be hyper-realistic about your goals and be action-minded in your approach to achieving them.
This might be less exciting and sexy than other books that tell you that you can use the power of your thoughts to manifest whatever you want in your life, but you are going to enjoy the outcome much, much more.
Hope you enjoyed this summary. As always leave me a comment if you did.
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