by Gabriele Oettingen | 9:27 AM October 27, 2014
There’s just one problem, however. Research my colleagues and I have performed over the past two decades suggests that positive thinking doesn’t actually help us as much as we suppose. In fact, across dozens of peer-reviewed studies examining the effects of positive visions of the future on people pursuing various kinds of wishes — from health-related, such as losing weight, quitting smoking, or recovering quickly from surgery, to the improvement of professional or academic performance (for example, mid-level managers wishing to reduce job-related stress, graduate students looking for a job, or school children seeking to get good grades) — we’ve consistently found that people who positively fantasize make either the same or less progress in achieving attainable wishes than those who don’t.
This makes perfect sense, if you think about it. Dreaming about a successful outcome in the future is pleasurable, leaving you with a nice, warm feeling of satisfaction. But in a workplace setting, that’s counterproductive. You’re less motivated to buck up and make the strong, persistent effort that is usually required to realize challenging but feasible wishes. In some of our studies, we found that positive thinking produced measurably lower systolic blood pressure — a key measure of how energized someone is. In others, positive thinkers were as likely as participants in a control group to take easy steps toward a goal, but significantly less likely to take more cumbersome and difficult steps, such as donating meaningful amounts of their time or money.
“Okay,” you might say, “Forget positive thinking. I’m going to dwell on all the daunting challenges I face in my job.” But, unfortunately, dwelling on reality doesn’t help much either.
What does help is mental contrasting, an exercise that brings together our positive fantasy about the future with a visualization of the obstacle standing in the way. Even more beneficial is adding if-then planning that allows you to address the obstacle when it arises.
In our research, we’ve developed a mental contrasting tool called WOOP — Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. Here’s how it works: Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed, switch off your devices, and close your eyes. Name a wish that is attainable or realistic for you — say, landing a new client. Then imagine for a few minutes what would happen if that wish came true, letting the images flow freely through your mind. Then change things up. Identify the main obstacle inside you that stands in the way, and imagine it for a few minutes. Now on to your plan: If faced with obstacle X, then you will take effective action Y in response.
WOOP is simple, easy, and inexpensive — so much so that you might not think it would work. After all, behavior change usually requires expensive coaching or training programs, right? Our results suggest not. In a study of health care providers, we found that those who used WOOP were significantly more engaged with their work and less stressed than members of a control group. In studies of college students enrolled in a vocational business program, we found that it helped them manage their time better. And we’ve also used WOOP to help school children study more for the PSAT, do more homework, and get better grades.
Why does it work? Because the process either helps people understand their wishes are attainable, giving them energy and direction, heightening their engagement and prompting them to act; or it helps them realize their wishes are unrealistic, leading them to disengage and freeing them up to pursue other, more promising endeavors.
Although positive thinking feels good in the moment, it often bears a false promise. Only when it’s paired with a clear view of potential obstacles will it consistently produce desirable results.
Gabriele Oettingen is a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg and the author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.
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