Breaking news: The power of positive thinking is not all it’s cracked up to be. Perhaps “breaking news” is a slight overstatement, considering the research discounting the effects of positive thinking has been amassing for years. So we decided to investigate ourselves: Is positive thinking bogus? Are pessimists just as likely to get ahead? Should we all stop trying so hard to “look on the bright side”? Keep reading to find out the truth about the connection between positive thinking and achieving your goals!
First, we should point out that were talking about research pertaining to positive thinking’s affect on reaching your goals. There’s also a whole separate body of research on positive thinking and health outcomes, and in that case, it’s clear an upbeat attitude is good for you.
However, when it comes to things like losing weight, doing well in school, and getting ahead at work, positive thinking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it can even be detrimental.
In one study, women in a weight loss program were asked to ask imagine how they’d behave in situations where they were tempted to cheat on their diets. One year later, those who had reported positive outcomes (i.e. they imagined themselves confidently passing up the donut offered to them), lost 24 pounds less than those who pictured their reactions more negatively.
In another study, students were asked to imagine how their week would go. One group was asked to picture it going well. The other group was instructed to write any thoughts about the coming week that came to mind. The students who took an optimistic view went on to accomplish less and reported feeling less energized than students who weren’t asked to “think positive.” Numerous studies about performance report similar findings. So the big question is why?
One possible explanation is related to biology: Daydreaming about the future actually calms you down, lowering your blood pressure, which can drain the energy needed to take action in pursuit of your goals. Another theory? Fantasizing about perfect outcomes makes you ill-prepared for the setbacks that may come your way.
So that brings us to the bigger question: If the “if you believe it, you can achieve it” attitude is actually holding us back, what’s the alternative?
Like a lot in life, the answer lays somewhere in the middle between the two extremes of overt pessimism and blind optimism. New York psychologist Gabriele Oettingen suggests a bit of a hybrid approach. You start by defining your goal—what is it that you want? Then, you imagine the outcome. You picture what it would be like if your wish came true—that’s the positive thinking part. But rather than stopping there, you continue with two more exercises. You then give yourself a little reality check, and imagine what obstacles you’ll encounter in the path to achieving your goal. Finally, you make a plan. You figure out what you’ll need to do to overcome those obstacles. Oettingen sums up the four steps in an easy to remember acronym: WOOP. Wish. Outcome. Obstacle. Plan. Ottettingen’s research has shown this realistic approach to goals can be very powerful. WOOP, there it is.
Do you have a goal you’re working on? Share your goals in the comments below!