So many of us grew up hearing about the power of positive thinking and being told to visualize our way to happiness and success. But now, this: Positive thinking, by itself, will get you nowhere. This is the message broadcast recently in The New York Times and the Harvard Business Review blog by Dr. Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor at New York University and the University of Hamburg. “[T]he truth is that positive thinking often hinders us,” wrote Dr. Oettingen, whose book, “Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the Science of Motivation,” came out in October.
In research involving women who wanted to lose weight, college students who wanted a date, schoolchildren hoping for good grades, and surgery patients longing for positive recovery, results showed that visualizing happy outcomes didn’t yield the desired results, Dr. Oettingen wrote in The New York Times. In fact, all that time and energy spent on positive visualization actually prevented the research participants from getting what they hoped for. Why is that? “Positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we’ve already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it, “ Dr. Oettingen wrote.
What does this mean for your professional life? Dreaming about successful outcomes is unproductive in the workplace, Dr. Oettingen wrote in her piece, “Stop Being So Positive,” on the Harvard Business Review blog. Positive thinking can actually lower your blood pressure and knock your energy level down, she explained.
But here is the good news: Positive thinking can be good, when coupled with the right kind of contrasting visualization, according to Dr. Oettingen. Positive thinking isn’t categorically bad, she explained, and the answer is not that we all need to “get real” and focus strictly on all the obstacles in our lives. The key is to strike a balance. She calls it “mental contrasting.”
Here’s how it works: Spend some time fantasizing about your wishes, and then spend some time visualizing the obstacles that stand in your way. Dr. Oettingen has even developed an App to help college students achieve their goals using her process, which she calls WOOP, for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle and Plan.
The principles apply to the workplace as much as to the college campus, bearing in mind that the wishes must be reasonable and attainable: Landing a new client is an example. Becoming a millionaire overnight, is not.
These are the WOOP steps:
Step 1: The Wish: Spend a few minutes visualizing your wish. “How would fulfilling your wish make you feel?” the WOOP App asks.
Step 2: The Outcome: Spend a few minutes visualizing what would happen if your wish came true, “letting the images flow freely through your mind,” Dr. Oettingen writes.
Step 3: The Obstacles: “Sometimes things don’t work out as we would like,” the WOOP App reminds us. This is step where you focus on what is standing between you and the attainment of your wish.
Step 4: Plan: In this final step, you create a game plan: If [fill in with your obstacle] then I will [fill in with your action].
Why does this 4-step tool help people achieve their goals? Dr. Oettingen has two theories: Either the exercise helps channel one’s energy in the right direction to achieve the goal, or the reflection process helps the person realize the wish is unrealistic and it’s time to move on to the next project.
“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,” Dr. Oettingen concluded in her Harvard Business Review piece.