How Positive Thinking Holds You Back

How positive thinking can actually impede you from realizing your dream.

There’s so much in the popular culture about the power of positive thinking. “Nothing is impossible.” “Think big, dream big, believe big.” “Don’t worry, be happy.” From pop music to box-office hits, we are promised with positive outcome if we look on the bright side, dream big and shoot for the stars. Despite the hype surrounding positive thinking, this widely embraced philosophy inevitably attracts a fair share of criticism.

In a BBC article, Positive thinking can make you too lazy to meet your goals, Renuka Rayasam writes about how our optimism might be getting in the way of achieving success, particularly in business.

Books on positive thinking, such as The Power of Positive Thinking by Vincent Peale tend to be received favourably by business leaders and others – being sold over 7 million copies worldwide and translated into fifteen languages. These positive thinking tomes preach about positive thinking as the stairway to success in business. Of course, all businesses sprout from optimism – why start a business if you feel that the business is doomed to failure? However, in order for the business to take its course, new study suggests that business leaders need more than just positive thinking.

Rethinking positive thinking
Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University who wrote Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation sees positive thinking as unrealistic and distracts one from actually attaining their goal. Indulging in fantasies about the future does feels good, but as Oettingen began researching into the topic, she found that positive thinking seduces us to feel accomplished, hence we are less likely to take the necessary action to achieve our goal.

For example, Oettingen’s research shows that the more university graduates fantasise about getting a job, the fewer job offers they receive. It appears that they sent fewer job applications too. Students who dream about getting good grades also tend to perform worst than those who were filled with doubt and worry.

Is optimism bad?
Absolutely not, according to Oettingen. Positive thinking is good because they drive motivation. It forms the foundation behind every business, mind-body medicine and self-help programs. “They are the beginning of action. But they’re only the beginning. They give action the direction but they don’t give action the necessary energy,” says Oettingen.

In her experiment, Oettingen discovered that when people fantasise about a positive future or ruminate on impending reality, their systolic blood pressure and energy reduces. “When they feel accomplished, they relaxed because mentally they are already there,” she says. Thus they often fail to exert enough effort to realise their goal.

However, this does not mean that we should be a grumpy grouch all the time. Truth is that we are inclined to think positively as optimism is naturally hardwired in us. We are less likely to mix fantasy and reality together as it is uncomfortable. Cognitive dissonance, the discomfort from having two conflicting thought occurs as the move from happy thoughts to realisations of having a lot of work to do can be depressing. Thus we tend to attempt all kinds of mental contortions to avoid facing the truth.

From dreams to reality
Thinking positively helps us to explore the possibilities of the future. However, to prevent them from impeding our goals, Oettingen recommends combining the positive fantasies with a good sense of reality – the negative thoughts that we usually brush aside and ignore.

Oettingen named this strategy WOOP, which stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle and Plan. Known scientifically as “mental contrasting”, it is a visualisation technique which involves combining visions of the future with a clear sense of obstacles that may stand in your way. This helps one to distinguish goals that are attainable from unrealistic ones, and hence keep people motivated to overcome the obstacles.

Dream a little smaller
When done right, this strategy forces us to decide whether our goal is really achievable or not. If the obstacle is deemed too much, we can safely disregard our goal without a bad conscience, before wasting our time and resources on it. In a way it helps us to focus on a meaningful piece of problem that we can address one step at a time rather than focusing on massive challenges. While there might be a lot of pressure in keeping a positive outlook in business, being committed to what you can accomplish and achieve might actually be moving the business forward. It is important to understand that the opposite of being positive is not being negative. Instead, it is being realistic.

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