(About a 9 minute read)
When I gave positive thinking a try some decades ago and it didn’t work for me, I concluded it was for the other guy. That is, I didn’t write it off for everyone, because too many people were telling me that it worked for them, but I did write it off for me. I didn’t know then that I myself routinely indulged in a kind or species of positive thinking.
I had a mental habit — and I still do — of first daydreaming about something I wanted, such as honesty in politics, improving my painting skills, or — most often — to see Terri’s breasts in the moonlight once again. I’d let my mind wander imagining
her magnificently pleasing honesty in politics, etc, and all that those things meant or implied. That was the positive thinking part of it.
Sooner or later, however, my mind would turn to assessing the problems and challenges involved in making those things happen. How could I overcome those problems and challenges? Sometimes I’d realize at that point that there were few if any practical ways of overcoming them (e.g. in the case of pure honesty in politics). Yet, often enough, I’d come up with a workable plan to obtain my wishes.
That was and is my version of positive thinking. It seems to be something that I long ago just lucked into, because I have no memory of it having been taught to me. It turns out, though, that I’m not alone in doing it.
Gabriele Oettingen is a scientist who studies how people think about the future, and who writes about positive thinking, among other things. Based on over twenty years of research, Oettingen has concluded:
While optimism can help us alleviate immediate suffering and persevere in challenging times, merely dreaming about the future actually makes people more frustrated and unhappy over the long term and less likely to achieve their goals. In fact, the pleasure we gain from positive fantasies allows us to fulfill our wishes virtually, sapping our energy to perform the hard work of meeting challenges and achieving goals in real life.
In a New York Times article that is well worth reading in its entirety, she writes:
[T]he truth is that positive thinking often hinders us. More than two decades ago, I conducted a study in which I presented women enrolled in a weight-reduction program with several short, open-ended scenarios about future events — and asked them to imagine how they would fare in each one. Some of these scenarios asked the women to imagine that they had successfully completed the program; others asked them to imagine situations in which they were tempted to cheat on their diets. I then asked the women to rate how positive or negative their resulting thoughts and images were.
A year later, I checked in on these women. The results were striking: The more positively women had imagined themselves in these scenarios, the fewer pounds they had lost.
My colleagues and I have since performed many follow-up studies, observing a range of people, including children and adults; residents of different countries (the United States and Germany); and people with various kinds of wishes — college students wanting a date, hip-replacement patients hoping to get back on their feet, graduate students looking for a job, schoolchildren wishing to get good grades. In each of these studies, the results have been clear: Fantasizing about happy outcomes — about smoothly attaining your wishes — didn’t help. Indeed, it hindered people from realizing their dreams.
But Oettingen does not recommend giving up on positive thinking entirely.
In a turn of events certain to astound and confuse my two ex-wives, I have actually gotten something right in my life.
I am sooo going to email this blog post them! Of course, I am far above gloating about it, but it happens that Oettingen and her colleagues have discovered that combining positive thinking about one’s wishes with realistically thinking about the problems and challenges to obtaining one’s wishes is an effective way to realize those wishes. At least, those wishes that are basically realizable in the first place. The psychologists call it “mental contrasting“:
What does work better is a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with “realism.” Here’s how it works. Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.
This simple process, which my colleagues and I call “mental contrasting,” has produced powerful results in laboratory experiments. When participants have performed mental contrasting with reasonable, potentially attainable wishes, they have come away more energized and achieved better results compared with participants who either positively fantasized or dwelt on the obstacles.
When participants have performed mental contrasting with wishes that are not reasonable or attainable, they have disengaged more from these wishes. Mental contrasting spurs us on when it makes sense to pursue a wish, and lets us abandon wishes more readily when it doesn’t, so that we can go after other, more reasonable ambitions.
I think mental contrasting can help with far more than meeting near universally felt personal goals such as weight loss, job promotion, skill improvement, or smooching with Terri. I think it can also help with such things as developing a realistic politics. In fact, I’d argue that several of the American Founders were more or less masterful at reconciling their idealism with both eternal political realities and the circumstances of their time. It’s my guess they did so by intuitively employing some form of mental contrasting.
Now, as long as we’re on the subject of getting what you want, I’d like to add here a second technique that I have personally found helpful. I don’t know of any science, however, that either supports or discourages this second technique. But, for whatever it might be worth, I’ve found it to be efficacious in obtaining your goals. This is not a technique that I came up with on my own, though.
Thirty-five or so years ago, I was struggling at a job in corporate sales. I wasn’t even coming close to making my monthly quotas, and perhaps the only two reasons that I wasn’t fired for lack of performance were that most of my fellow sales people were in the same boat (it was one tough industry to be a salesperson in!), and that the management of the company were ridiculously old fashioned enough to care about their employees. One way they showed that care for us was to, instead of firing us all, hire a sales coach. An excellent coach, as it turned out.
Within about year, I’d turned myself around. But I didn’t fully realize by how much I had improved until the Chief Financial Officer took me aside at an employee meeting to inform me that in the first quarter of the year I had added more revenue to the company’s coffers than all the other salespeople combined. The quarter after that, I beat my own new record by such a margin that I, who have always been the most hard-working, dedicated, and conscientious of employees, was able to negotiate an immediate month long paid vacation. “You sure don’t want me burnt out for the rest of the year, do you? I needs me fishing time!”
I put my turnaround down to that coach, and to the fact I was one of the few salespeople who took his lessons to heart. Maybe that was due to the fact he’d told me something revealing about the effectiveness of his methods: “Most people are either going to dismiss out of hand what I’m trying to show them, or they’re going to give it a single try, get their noses bloodied, and give up on it all. The fact is, there’s a learning curve to these things. You can’t expect to get it right the first time, nor even the second or third times. It’s just like learning tennis: It takes a lot of practice to become good at it.” I was determined not to give up on his lessons until I’d given them a fair shot.
I won’t go much into the first thing he taught me. It revolutionized how I sold to people, and it’s probably the more important of his lessons, but it’s largely irrelevant in this context. The second thing, though, is pertinent.
Simply put, my coach changed my thinking by defining a goal as “a lens through which one sees opportunities”. I can no longer recall what I thought a goal was before then, but I do recall goals had always intimidated me. Yet, after I began to practice his lesson in earnest, I no longer felt intimidated by them.
By “a lens through which one sees opportunities” he meant, in part, that you should become at least mildly obsessed with your goal. You should start looking for ways to reach it everywhere and in everything. Suppose, for instance, you sold furniture, and you were at a party during which someone mentioned to you that their girlfriend had just given them the ultimatum, “Get your books off the floor or I’m leaving!”. If you were properly obsessing, you’d at once see that as an opportunity to sell them some of your shelving.
Besides making me alert to such straight-forward opportunities as that one, I found obsessing on my goal brought out my creativity. I began seeing more and more obscure opportunities. In the end, it was as if I couldn’t drive to work in the mornings without seeing at least a half dozen things that would pop ideas into my head about how to sell my service to some business or another.
Now to be sure, there was a downside to turning my goal into an obsession. That was driven home to me in a WTF? moment one day. I was waiting in my car at a stoplight, and I had just thought of a way my service could boost one of my client’s sales from repeat customers. I wanted nothing more than to get the office and call him for an appointment. An old woman with a walker was slowly crossing the street when the light turned green. Without thinking of her, but only of my goal, I started honking the horn. Abruptly, I realized what a jerk I’d become!
So I think that, when turning a goal into an obsession, you should bear in mind the dangers of becoming ruthless in your pursuit of it. But, apart from that, the practice has served me well over the years.
Of course, when adopting or creating a goal for myself, I perform mental contrasting to understand it and the problems and challenges to realizing it. I regret that I have no science for you that suggests seeing your goal as a lens through which to spot opportunities actually works for anyone other than me, but it might still be something you should give a try. Just don’t start honking at people when they’re trying to cross the street!