We know that positive thinking has a lot of benefits.
Not only are positive thinkers healthier and less stressed, they also have greater overall well-being. According to positive psychology researcher Suzanne Segerstrom, “Setbacks are inherent to almost every worthwhile human activity, and a number of studies show that optimists are in general both psychologically and physiologically healthier.” While this is true, has it been oversold as a way to achieve your goals?
Dreaming of wonderful outcomes can feel great. Unfortunately, those feelings can stop us from doing the hard work necessary to make our goals a reality. If you want to change, you might want to confront your dreams with some hard, cold, even negative reality, studies show. “It’s so pleasant to believe that positive fantasies will work,” says Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University and author of the author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. “But it’s too good to be true.”
One of Oettingen’s earliest studies showed that positive thinking alone can backfire when it comes to losing weight. In that study, women in a one-year weight loss program who had the most positive fantasies about future slimness lost an average of 24 pounds less than women with less rosy visions.
The same thing happened with people who fantasized about recovering quickly from hip surgery, getting a date with an attractive person or getting good exam grades.
Oettingen’s theory: Dreaming about a positive future “can seduce you into thinking you are already there. Then you don’t get the energy to actually go there. Instead, you just lean back and enjoy the moment.”
A recent article in WorkLife states “Psychological research shows that we should start making pragmatic plans to accomplish our goals instead of simply dancing in daydreams.” This means comparing those rosy visions with our current reality, identifying the obstacles and finding the best way to overcome them. Research shows that most people fail to effectively engage the strategy in their daily lives, meaning that our good intentions remain wishful thinking, and we never reach our dreams.
Gabriele Oettingen introduced the concept of “mental contrasting” in the early 2000s. Learning how to mentally contrast effectively can improve our problem solving, motivation and self-control, all of which can bring huge benefits to our personal and professional lives.
An article in Positivepsychology.com highlighted that Mental Contrasting and Positive Thinking have some features in common, like self-awareness and acceptance, but the core idea of the two concepts differ substantially.
Mental Contrasting is a visualization tool that takes us to where we want to be by reflecting on the pros and cons of the pathway. For example, if a person who is fired from his job wants to start over in a new city, his mental contrasting scenarios would include:
- Imageries about his current feelings (I am sad/I am broke/ I feel hopeless).
- Imageries of what would happen once he gets a new job (I am back on my feet/ I am happy/I can take care of my family).
- Imageries about what he might have to go through to get there (appear for interviews/ search for jobs which can be stressful and time-taking/face rejections).
Mental Contrasting, therefore, is a more realistic and solution-focused thinking process where we prepare the mind to see both the good and bad and choose our actions accordingly.
Since then, Mental Contrasting has been a significant area of research in mental health and social sciences. Oettingen (2014) described the entire process of Mental Contrasting in a few words. She said:
“Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes, imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.”
Madhuleen Roy Chowhury, Physhiatric Councellor explained that with positive thinking and imagination, we give the subconscious a temporary feeling of ‘everything is okay,’ which explains the immediate motivation surge that comes with the practice. However, the mind remains unaware of the ways of sustaining happiness. As a result, we fall into a vicious cycle of feeling good and bad.
With mental contrasting, as researchers have indicated, we can see through the current problems. For example, if an obese person is practicing mental contrasting, he will imagine his ideal body and, at the same time, will be aware of how hard the workout sessions are going to be.
The process and the product are both transparent in mental contrasting. And as a result, he will likely be successful in going through all the hectic procedures for losing weight without giving up halfway.
Mental Contrasting ties the conscious and the subconscious mind together.
With mental contrasting, as researchers have indicated, we can see through the current problems. For example, if an obese person is practicing mental contrasting he will imagine his ideal body and, at the same time, will be aware of how hard the workout sessions are going to be. The process and the product are both transparent in mental contrasting. And as a result, he will likely be successful in going through all the hectic procedures for losing weight without giving up halfway.
With additional studies, Oettingen came up with a strategy for turning dreams into action or, when appropriate, new dreams. It goes by the acronym WOOP, standing for:
- Wish:Let yourself dream about a specific wish for your life.
- Outcome:Think about the best thing that could happen as a result.
- Obstacles:Think about the thoughts, behaviors, habits and preconceived notions that might hold you back.
- Plan:Think about when and where an obstacle will occur and make an “if-then” plan: “If obstacle x occurs, then I will perform behavior y.”
Someone who wants to walk more might end up with a plan like: “If I feel I do not have time to go for a brisk walk, then I will remind myself: I will be more productive after having been outside.”
The method could make a huge difference for “people who tend to get stuck in the dreaming part” of pursuing their goals, says Julie Norem, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College.
Recent intervention studies show that mental contrasting can be easily taught and applied; it can be used by people of all ages and backgrounds to master their every-day life and fulfill their long-term wishes. Mental contrasting is particularly effective in providing sustained behavior change when combined with forming implementation intentions.
So, the next time you catch yourself dreaming about a goal stay positive and apply the WOOP process to make your dream a reality.
- Oettingen G., Wadden T. A. (1991). Expectation, fantasy, and weight loss: is the impact of positive thinking always positive? Cog. Therapy Res. 15, 167–175 10.1007/BF01173206
- Kappes H. B., Oettingen G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 47, 719–729 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.02.003
- Oettingen G, Schwörer B. Mind wandering via mental contrasting as a tool for behavior change. Front Psychol. 2013;4:562. Published 2013 Sep 2. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00562