Why Positive Thinking Isn’t Enough

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Now that New Year's resolution season has come and gone, chances are good that your health and wellness goals have hit the rails. While you might assume the answer to get back on track is to just change your attitude and get positive, there’s actually a better, and surprising, course of action. We spoke with Gabriele Oettingen, a social psychology professor at New York University and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking about why getting a little bleak may make this your breakthrough year.  

Your book concludes that people who are relentlessly sunny are less likely to succeed in their goals versus their more dour counterparts. How did you figure this out?
At the beginning, when you looked at certain research samples, like people who were overweight and wanted to lose weight and university grads who wanted to transition into work life, we first looked at probability of fantasy and waited and looked what would happen. We found out that the more positive their thinking, the less successful they would be over time. Then we replicated these findings over and over. We knew we had a phenomenon that is very much counter to what people think and what I, at the beginning, also thought.

When we think only positively, our minds, and even physiologically our bodies, relax and react as if we've already gotten the thing we want. We're less motivated and amped up to start working through the inevitable obstacles that arise when we're trying to achieve something. The future outcome we want and the obstacles that stand in our way are automatically linked and when we don't recognize those obstacles and address what we'll do when we're confronted by them, we have neither a plan to overcome them or the motivation to do so. 


Out of your research, you developed a better goal-making system (WOOP). How does it work?
We realized that fantasizing [about your dreams] doesn’t cut it – we need to contrast it with an obstacle. WOOP stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. First, you identify what is important and central to you. Think: For 2015, how do I want my life to change? Figure out your wish, not what other people are saying you should do. Then identify the best outcome; really let your mind go and your free thoughts and images wander. Once you’ve done that, then you say, “What’s stopping me from realizing that wish? What is it in me that’s holding me back?” Be honest with yourself and dig deep. You could even find an old hang-up or something emotional. Imagine the obstacle happening – actually think about experiencing that obstacle – and let your mind go again. Next you say, “What can I do to overcome that obstacle?” Make an if/then statement: if this happens, then I will do… That’s all. You can do it for a wish you have for the whole year, the next four weeks or even the next 24 hours. It’s a skill you develop. It’s not only about weight-loss goals or work success, it can be a wish for a telephone call, for what happens tonight.

 What if you finish WOOPing only to realize that the obstacles that stand between you and your dreams are insurmountable?
If the obstacles are such that you can’t deal with it at the moment, think about tackling them later on, or delegating them. Sometimes you might find that the wish just isn’t for you. Or you adjust it. You may find that going to the gym seven days a week is too much, but three is ok. By understanding what really stands in the way, you understand what you can do and what you can’t do. Then your whole heart embraces it and you can really tackle it. Or you can invest your time in something that is more feasible. It’s a way of cleaning up your life and understanding what you can achieve and the other things that aren’t for now.

We live in a society that makes big promises of getting dreams easily: a luxury car gets you the girl, just signing up for the gym gets you a six-pack. That's unrealistic, but appealing. How can people get motivated to settle in for a long haul? 
It would be easier for us if we could employ some kindness and humor. We have these obstacles within us that impede us. The idea is that we tackle these obstacles, that we deal with them. If the first didn't work, take the second. Do it playfully instead of interpreting it as a big misery and something that defines you and your being. When you do WOOP yourself, you don't know what will come out. You might even get creative and learn what's dear to you that you didn't realize. 

So WOOP’ing starts out from a place of dreaming, of thinking positively, then realistically identifying the obstacles. Is there ever a situation where you should start off negatively?
Sure, you could start from the negative future with negative fantasies about the future that come from fears. Then you do mental contrasting with the positive reality. So if you're looking to quit a bad habit, you think about a future in which you haven't and imagine all of the bad things that happen — really let the mind go. Then you contrast it with the present and look at all the things between now and then that would have to go wrong for your worst fears to be realized. You still end up identifying the same obstacles and set up strategies in advance to overcome them, so the effect is the same. 

Any tips to help make WOOP work?
You don't have to start with huge goals. Think about this: Your dream is to run a marathon. But the one you've selected is in two weeks and you think, "Ugh, come on, it's too formidable." This is a goal for next year. But you start small, join a club, run shorter races. You understand then what you can and can't do. You don't feel bad when you hear other people are running the marathon. Then you're not loaded with all the goals you can't reach and achieve the ones you can. It becomes a muscle – the more easy and automatic it comes.  

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