You’ve heard the same message from an early age.
“Think positive. Be optimistic. Look at the bright side of things.”
It’s repeated over and over again in pop music, political speeches, and commercials.
No matter what you want to achieve, the message is the same:
Focus on your dreams, eliminate negative self-talk, and your wish will inevitably come true.
The problem, unfortunately, is that it doesn’t work.
The Downsides of Positive Thinking
Gabrielle Oettingen is a professor of psychology and the author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation1.
After studying motivation for more than 20 years, she has found that a positive outlook isn’t as great as conventional wisdom tells us.
In fact, dreamers are often non-doers.
Why? Because positive thinking makes you feel good in the moment.
And that pleasure is actually a huge problem because it makes you feel the same sense of accomplishment as you would if you had attained your goal2.
Merely envisioning the success you want saps the energy needed to make it happen in reality(!).
Positive Thinking = Less Effort
Research conducted over the last 20 years has shown that3:
- The more positive obese people are when entering a weight reduction program, the less weight they’ll lose.
- The more positive University graduates are about entering the job market, the less they’ll earn.
- The more positive students are about excelling on a test, the worse they’ll perform.
- The more positive people are about retirement, the less they’ll save.
- The more positive hip replacement patients are about early recovery, the less well they’ll do as judged by their physical therapist.
The takeaway? Positive thinkers put in less effort and are therefore less successful.
Practical Positive Thinking
So, does this mean that we should become pessimists and dismiss positive thinking altogether?
But only when they’re using their positivity in a practical way.
Positive thinking is very helpful for sketching out the possibilities you have in your future.
And it’s also useful for implementing these dreams.
But only if you combine your positive thinking with a good sense of reality.
So, how do you go about doing that?
WOOP Your Goals
WOOP is an acronym based on Gabriele Oettingen’s research. It stands for:
By taking your goals through these steps, you’ll be much more likely to follow through on it.
Oettingen and her colleagues have found that people who use WOOP are more successful in reducing cigarette smoking, eating less unhealthy food, doing more work, fostering healthier relationships, and many other goals3.
Let’s look at each step in more detail. Oh, and let’s pretend you want to eat healthier as a practical example.
Every change starts with a wish. In this first step, ask yourself what you would like to achieve. Make sure that it’s challenging and at the same time feasible.
You want to eat healthier, so you decide only to eat salads for lunch.
This is where positive thinking comes into play. What are the benefits you’ll experience when you achieve your outcome?
You’ll lose some weight, get healthier, and have more energy.
Most people never make it to this step. And that’s a problem because it’s not enough to decide what you want to do and imagine the benefits it will bring. You also have to rub it against reality. What are the specific obstacles that will get in the way when you’re trying to turn your wish into reality?
You’re often offered a desert after lunch.
Finally, you need to put a plan in place for how to deal with each obstacle so you can attain your wish. You do that by creating an “If –> Then” plan for each obstacle using this framework:
If [obstacle] happens, –> Then I will [pre-planned action].
If I’m offered a desert after lunch –> Then I will order a cup of coffee.
How to Stop Dreaming and Start Doing, In Summary:
Positive thinking is great but only if you combine it with a good sense of reality. You can do that by using the WOOP process:
- Wish. What do you want to achieve?
- Outcome. Use positive thinking to imagine the benefits.
- Obstacles. What will get in the way?
- Plan. When the obstacle shows up, how will you deal with it? “If _____ happens, Then I will _____.”
Now, I have a challenge for you:
Run your most desired goal through the WOOP process immediately.
If it’s truly important to you, why let it wait?
Let’s stop dreaming and start doing.