Psychologist Gabriele Oettingen has been investigating the impact of negative thinking on happy outcomes for over 20 years. In her groundbreaking new book Rethinking Positive Thinking (Current, £24), she presents strong evidence for why visualising and wishing alone are unlikely to bring us what we want.
In one of Oettingen’s early studies, she worked with a group of women who were trying to lose weight. Some were asked to positively visualise having already lost the weight, how they'd look and feel, while a second group were asked to focus on being tempted to cheat and failing to stick to the regime. Against all expectations, one year later on average the positive thinkers had lost 24lbs less than the negative thinkers.
Oettingen is not against creative visualisation, but believes positive thinking without considering setbacks or making a plan fools our minds into perceiving that we’ve already attained our goal, taking the edge off our readiness to pursue it.
Oettingen calls her process of first visualising your dream and then imagining all the reasons why you might not achieve it, ‘mental contrasting’ and developed it into a fully-fledged system called WOOP (see below). ‘The problem is this: if I imagine having already fulfilled my wish, experiencing the nice emotions that come up when I do that, there is no imagined anticipated resistance; I’m just travelling on that cloud. It’s lovely, but there is certainly no clue that I need to do something about it.’
This sounds great but what if obstacles are external, for example your goal is to enjoy your job more, but you can’t stand your boss? Or your dream is to travel the world, but you’ve got the sum total of £23.54 left in the bank at the end of the month?
Oettingen acknowledges this poses some challenges, but says even then there’s usually some action we can take. ‘Say you’re in a relationship that you want to improve. Ask yourself, “What stands in the way? Let me look inside myself”.’ Then you might find things: anxiety, anger, reluctance or some old hang-up to be overcome. If we focus on externals, it’s true we can’t change them. Maybe we can’t change partners or bosses, but we can change our behaviour – how we respond to situations on the inside. We can change how we treat our partner or approach the boss. If the obstacle is money, well, we can always try to spend less! But nothing will change if all you’re doing is sitting there thinking “I want more money”,’ she points out.
WOOP – Wishful thinking made real
- Wish: Think about one achievable wish. If there are several, pick the most important.
- Outcome: What is the best thing you can think of to come out of fulfilling your dream? Vividly imagine the events and experiences – give your imagination free rein.
- Obstacle: Sometimes things don’t work out as we hope. What is it that holds you back? Identify the biggest internal obstacle that gets in your way – is it a behaviour, emotion, obsessive thought, bad habit or assumptions you jump to? Again, give your mind free rein here.
- Plan: What do you think you can do to overcome that obstacle? Name the most effective thought or action you could take and hold it in your mind. Now think about when and where the obstacle is likely to occur. Form an if-then plan and be prepared: ‘If obstacle X occurs, then I will perform behaviour Y.’
Try it! Download Gabriele Oettingen’s free WOOP Business app from iTunes.
Read 5 ways to feel more balanced, every day by Eminé Ali Rushton on LifeLabs
Photograph: Hero Images/Corbis