Your Positive Thinking Could Be Holding You Back

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The notion that simply imagining our deepest wishes coming true will help us attain them is everywhere these days. Best-­selling books like The Secret and Chicken Soup for the Soul teach us that we can make good things happen just by thinking positively, and that positive thinkers are “healthier, more active, more productive — and held in higher regard by those around them.”

Advertisers, politicians, and economists all put a premium on the importance of being happy and optimistic; financial markets rise and fall on whether or not people seem hopeful. Popular music celebrates the ability of dreaming and dreamers to save the world. We’re also warned from a young age and at every subsequent turn to rid ourselves of harmful “negative self-talk” or to “get out of the hole of negative thinking” if we want to succeed in life. An inspiring message posted on the wall of a Manhattan middle school exhorts kids to “Reach for the moon; even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

The worship of optimism is neither of recent vintage nor uniquely American, but Americans traditionally have seemed to relish their optimistic outlook. As a German citizen who came to the United States relatively late in life, I was initially struck by how much more positive thinking was valued in the United States than back in Europe. In Germany, if you asked how someone was doing, you would usually get a frank answer, such as “I didn’t sleep well last night,” or “My puppy got sick and it’s bothering me.” In America, I noticed how people would say, “I’m fine”—even if something was bothering them. I also noticed that people found it jarring when someone violated the unwritten rule of positivity.

As unfamiliar as this widespread optimism was to me, I felt thankful for it and did not see it as a counterproductive presence in society. I gained a more nuanced perspective, though, when I began to study optimism during the mid-1980s. Initially, I was inspired by what I had seen in East Germany during the Cold War. I researched cross-cultural differences in levels of depressive behavior and compared pessimistic outlooks between individuals living under communism in East Germany with those who lived in West Germany’s more open, democratic society. As part of this research, I went into bars (or Kneipen, as Germans call them) in adjacent areas of East and West Berlin to observe and track signs of depression among male bar patrons.

On one occasion, an East German painter expressed his chagrin at being trapped in East Berlin. He had no canvas, paints, or other supplies required to pursue his art, and on ideo­logical grounds the authorities explicitly discouraged him from doing what he loved most. But this artist, who painted small, appealing figures in the style of Miró and Klee, also told me of his intense dreams of traveling outside of the country to pursue his artistic work. “One day, I’ll visit Paris,” he said quietly with a smile on his face. Then he turned to gaze out the window and sighed. It was a poignant moment that brought home just how sustaining positive fantasies can be.

Conversations such as this inspired me to refine my under­standing of optimism. I sensed that positive fantasies were an important part of the human experience, and wanted to explore in depth how they work and affect our behavior. I thought there were in fact two distinct kinds of optimism worth studying: positive expectations that were based on past experience, and the more free-flowing thoughts and images that were rooted in wishes and desires. I wondered in particular if positive dreams disconnected from past experience would affect people’s willingness and ability to take action in their lives.

Wanting to investigate this further, I conducted a study of twenty-five obese women enrolled in a weight-loss program. Before the program began, I asked participants how much weight they wished to lose and how likely it was that they would succeed. Then I asked each participant to complete several short open-ended scenarios. In some they were asked to imagine having successfully completed the program and in others being in situations in which they were tempted to violate their diets. The results of this initial study got my attention. After one year, women who assessed that they were likely to lose weight shed an average of twenty-six pounds more than those who didn’t believe they would lose much weight.

But here’s the kicker: Irrespective of their judgments based on past experience, women who had strong positive fantasies about slimming down—the ones who most positively pictured themselves looking slender and attractive when going out with their friend, or who pictured themselves passing by the doughnuts without batting an eye­ — lost twenty-four pounds less than those who pictured them­selves more negatively. Dreaming about achieving a goal apparently didn’t help that goal come to fruition. It impeded it from happening. The starry-eyed dreamers in the study were less energized to behave in ways that helped them lose weight.

I published that study back in 1991, and no, it didn’t sud­denly cause people either in psychology or the wider world to take a more nuanced look at optimism. It didn’t do much of anything because the prevailing belief in the power of optimism was just too strong. Almost everyone back then accepted with­out question the notion that positive views of the future would increase the chances of success, and for this reason some of my colleagues urged me (unsuccessfully) to change course.

Although my first study was published in a peer-reviewed journal, the second paper I wrote on the subject was rejected several times, with reviewers claiming that the results and arguments were too far-fetched. Some of my peers said they didn’t even want to finish reading my paper because my message was ridiculous and even hideous. I was upset and disappointed, but I wanted to see my ideas through.

I got to work conducting a number of rigorous, larger studies, spending twenty years observing people of different ages, in different contexts, in both Germany and the United States. I varied my research methods to anticipate any conceivable objection scholars might have. By the late 1990s, results were beginning to pile up. I studied children suffering from chronic gastrointestinal disease, asthma, and cancer. I studied low-income high school dropouts seeking to graduate from a German vocational school. I studied low-income women seeking to get good grades at an American business skills program. In each of these cases, positive fantasies either did not help or significantly hindered individuals from achieving their goals. Any way you sliced it, conventional wisdom in psychology and self-help literature was wrong: positive thinking wasn’t always helpful. Yes, sometimes it did help, but when it came in the form of a free-flowing dream—as so much positive thinking does — it impeded people in the long term from moving ahead. People were quite literally dreaming themselves to a standstill.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, when I gave talks presenting my findings, people responded with surprise and a dose of skepticism. “What?!” they said, their ears perking up. “I had assumed positive thinking was always helpful.” Yet these audience members didn’t grasp the full gravity of the findings. The ability to sustain motivation isn’t a trivial matter. The course of an individual’s life is determined by the action she takes in the world. When a person indulges in positive fantasies, she hamstrings herself from becoming all she is capable of being. The costs are substantial — and very real. Think of how relieved the obese women in my study would have felt if they had fantasized less and had lost more weight. Or how many more graduate students would have experienced the thrill of finding a good job. Or how much more comfort the recovering hip-replacement patients would have experienced.

None of this is to say idealizing the future “dooms” every person to failure. My results speak to statistical likelihoods of success and failure — the chances of moving ahead or staying stuck. Still, likelihoods do matter. Based on two decades of research findings, replicated across a variety of research participants, contexts, and methods, you would be ill-advised to indulge in dreams about achieving your goals and then assume you’re well on a path to success. Life just doesn’t work that way.

Reprinted from RETHINKING POSITIVE THINKING: Inside the New Science of Motivation with permission of Current, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright (c) Gabriele Oettingen, 2014. The book discusses “mental contrasting,” a more effective way of visualizing the future that has been shown to lead to weight loss, better grades, and a variety of other benefits. Footnotes from the original text were converted to links by Science of Us.