February 18, 2019

Why Positive Thinking Can Make You Less Likely To Achieve Your Goals and What To Do Instead

Pitfall of Positive Thinking

Positive thinking is great, but it has it's limitations.

What if I told you that positive thinking can backfire on you and make you less likely to reach your goals?

Sounds hard to believe?

Psychologist Gabriele Oettingen has done extensive research on how people think about the future and its impact on human behavior. 

What she found was quite fascinating...

  • The more the students imagined about getting positive grades, the less they improved.
  • The more positive the university graduates thought about entering the job market, the less they earned.
  • The more positive the people thought about retirement, the less they saved.
  • The more the participants imagined starting a new relationship, the less they began one.
  • The more the people just envisioned healthy eating, the less well they ate.
  • The more positive the obese patients thought about losing weight, the less weight they lost.
  • The more positive the patients who underwent a hip replacement surgery thought about early recovery, the less well they did.

But why?

Dr. Oettingen reveals that when we engage in positive thinking, it makes us achieve our wishes virtually in our mind and this reduces the effort that we would otherwise put in to reach our goals.

When we indulge in positive thinking, we may experience pleasure and feel good in the present moment, but we may end up being more depressed in the long run.

So what's the solution?

Introducing WOOP - known scientifically as Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions.

WOOP stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle and Plan.

Here's how it works.

Step 1: Pick a wish that is challenging but feasible.

Step 2: Identify the best possible outcome and imagine how it would make you feel.

Step 3: Identify the main obstacle within you that may hold you back from fulfilling your wish.

Step 4: Make a plan and outline the action you would take to overcome your obstacle using 'If I face this (obstacle), then I will (implement this action)'.

Here are some examples:

Eating Healthy

Step 1: Wish - I want to start eating healthy.

Step 2: Outcome - I won't feel tired and will have the energy to play with my children.

Step 3: Obstacle - I have a tendency to snack on junk food.

Step 4: Plan - If I feel the urge to snack, I will replace junk food with healthier alternatives like mixed nuts or kale chips or cucumber slices with hummus.

Waking up early

Step 1: Wish - I want to wake up early.

Step 2: Outcome - I will have quiet time for myself which would allow me to be more productive.

Step 3: Obstacle - I have the tendency to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep.

Step 4: Plan - I will place the alarm out of my reach so that I force myself to get out of bed and start my day. 

Be a better spouse

Step 1: Wish - I want to be fully present with my wife and have deeper and more meaningful conversations.

Step 2: Outcome - This will help improve my relationship with my wife and strengthen our marriage.

Step 3: Obstacle - I spend too much time on my cell phone which will prevent me from paying attention and being fully present.

Step 4: Plan - I will spend 30 minutes every evening with my wife and during this time, I will turn off my cell phone and put it in a drawer. If the cell phone is either turned on or within eyesight, I will ask my wife to remind me that I need to first turn off my cell phone and have it out of eyesight, before we have our daily one-on-one time.

Finally, Professor Oettingen acknowledges that we shouldn't be dismissive of positive thinking because it has its benefits especially when we want to map out the possibilities of our future and achieve our goals as long as we combine positive thinking with a good sense of reality. 

Check out The Hidden Brain Podcast on 'WOOP'.

Mind Mastery Lab