Last month I wrote a post about the power of positive thinking. As a follow-up to that post I wanted to share an article I read recently in the Wall Street Journal that expressed a different view of positive thinking, titled “The Case Against Positive Thinking” by Angela Chen. In this article Chen interviews psychiatrist Gabriele Oettingen about her new book “Rethinking Positive Thinking.” While Oettingen agrees that positive thinking is helpful, what she has found is that positive thinking can actually drain motivation when wanting to achieve a specific goal.
“There’s a difference between positive expectations, which are judgments about whether particular things will happen in the future, and positive fantasies, which are those stream-of-consciousness fantasies about just how it’ll feel when you achieve your goal. Positive expectations are fine, and positive fantasies are too when you have no real control over whether something happens. But when it comes to something you want to achieve, and fulfilling these wishes, positive fantasies are problematic because they relax you. They don’t provide the energy and effort necessary to help you in your goals, because you feel that you have already attained the positive future. They are dangerous when you actually want to achieve that future.”
I found this to be an interesting theory and while at first I was somewhat skeptical of her argument, I’m now finding I largely agree with her assertions. Positive thinking, as stated in my last post, does not mean pasting on a fake smile and pretending life is all sunshine and rainbows. Instead, it means that you develop a more positive way of relating to negative situations. Oettingen’s theory fits hand in hand with this idea because her basic argument seems to be that individuals need to be realistic in their positive thinking patterns when trying to achieve something. Her research has shown that individuals who approach a goal visualizing a positive outcome actually fare worse than those individuals who add the element of realistic planning to the process. By imagining a positive outcome while anticipating the obstacles that will face you as you try to achieve your goal, you can maintain a positive yet realistic mindset that will set you up for success.
One of the ways that Oettingen suggests that individuals remember this idea is by remembering the word WOOP.
Wish → Outcome → Obstacle → Plan
She claims it is a principle that can be applied to a lot of different areas of life. Below I’ve listed the example she gives in the interview on how to implement WOOP. Give it a try for yourself and see if you agree with her method!
“So take the wish: You want to do really well at a business meeting. Then imagine the best outcome, and how great it would be if everything went well. Think about the obstacles–maybe someone isn’t prepared, or you get nervous, or you’re too tired from your event on Sunday night–that are hindrances. And plan for what you’re going to do, whether it’s reading over your notes again or making sure you get enough sleep. This process changes your behavior by creating a link between the future and the reality, so you can’t daydream without doing anything. Now that fun event on Sunday night isn’t just a fun event, it’s also possibly an obstacle to doing well on that important business meeting, and maybe you’ll do something differently to help you at that business meeting on Monday.”