The Problem with Positive Thoughts
A Summary of “Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation” by Gabriele Oettingen, Psychologist and Researcher
We’ve all seen inspiring memes, or heard the messages to “Just stay positive!” “Think on the bright side!” or “Dare to dream big!” It’s often considered basic psychology to simply change one’s attitude to be more positive when dealing with life’s challenges, or working towards a difficult goal.
However, while such ideas can be very encouraging in many situations, there are plenty of reasons to reconsider their usefulness – or even be aware of their potential harm.
I recently read Dr. Gabriele Oettingen’s book, “Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation,” and found it very relevant to the work we do in therapy to help people manage anxieties and challenge mental barriers to happiness. The book bridges the areas of productivity and time management with self-help and mental health.
Oettingen begins by overturning an idea that is widely accepted, and infrequently questioned – the notion that positive and optimistic thinking is helpful when it comes to dealing with life’s adversity and trying to accomplish personal goals.
The book cites many research findings suggesting that positive thinking might be helpful for easy, quick tasks in the short term. However, with more difficult tasks, the hopeful and pleasurable feeling that comes from positive fantasizing wears off, often leaving discouragement and depression in the long term when we come to realize the actual difficulties standing in the way of our goal.
We literally experience a momentary high – a physiological boost of good feeling – when we think about realizing our dreams. But when we get to actually taking necessary steps toward that difficult goal, we face the contrasting reality that it’s actually much more challenging than the positive image in our mind. Many things in life can affect us this way: we start with a feeling of hope and positivity but actually the obstacles to achieving that goal cause us to feel even more discouraged.
To address this problem, the solution Oettingen proposes is called “mental contrasting,” which essentially teaches us to link our optimistic fantasies about future hopes with awareness of obstacles in the present reality. This technique is summarized with the acronym, “W.O.O.P.” (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan), outlined below:
- Wish – Identify the specific goal that you are hoping to achieve (social, professional, creative, academic, etc.)
- Outcome – Reflect on the best thing associated with that fulfilled wish
- Obstacle – Focus on any barriers to achieving the goal (logistical, material, financial, mental, etc.)
- Plan – Identify thoughts or actions to take to address the obstacles.
Oettingen’s book encourages the use of WOOP as an alternative to merely dreaming or thinking positively because it actually helps anticipate obstacles, solve problems, and take meaningful and concrete steps towards achieving goals.
She cites numerous studies showing how effective the mental contrasting strategy is for accomplishing all sorts of goals, such as weight loss, cutting back alcohol use, productivity, improved social and dating relationships, better academic performance. The research on WOOP is quite compelling, and adds a very important nuance to traditional cliches about merely thinking positively.
This is directly relevant to Cognitive Behavior Therapy, in that we are dealing with the thoughts that underlie mental health issues such as depression and anxiety disorders. When we feel discouraged that our efforts to achieve certain goals haven’t been successful, we might tend to feel helpless. This can naturally lead to anxiety (“What if I’m not successful?”), depression (“It’s hopeless, so why bother trying?”) or both.
Another interesting research finding is that WOOP is most helpful for fears that are unjustified, yet strong and debilitating. However, it may not be beneficial when we experience mild to moderate levels of anxiety, which sometimes are just enough to motivate us to perform well without significantly impairing us.
Oettingen’s mental contrasting summarizes a lot of the problem-solving strategies we help people with as Cognitive Behavior therapists. It can be a helpful tool for helping people think through the steps towards reaching a goal, and can help combat anxiety and depression.
If you are interested in more information on this technique, you can visit woopmylife.org or of course, read the book! Otherwise, at least consider some of these findings in light of how you go about setting and achieving your own goals, and dealing with any other challenges in your life..
…because as applied CBT and the research findings of this book both show, merely visualizing or thinking optimistically about desired goals is far less helpful than concrete steps toward taking action.
Martin Hsia, Psy.D. is the Clinical Director of CBT SoCal, and specializes in helping people with OCD, Anxiety, and Insomnia in Glendale, CA.