Many of us have been advised to “think positive”, but is this platitude truly helpful? The ubiquity of such advice is undeniable, and its efficacy seems intuitively strong, but the bulk of research is now showing that optimism may actually serve as a hindrance. While a happy-go-lucky attitude may work wonders in reducing stress, it also depletes us of the energy we need to successfully pursue our goals.
Individuals who are particularly adept at imagining positive results fool their brains into reacting as if the positive outcome occurred in reality. This, in turn, slackens ones readiness to actively pursue his or her goals. Think of a time during which you felt particularly optimistic about an exam, only to feel confounded and ambushed on test day, earning a score far below that which you expected. Now think of a time during which you were notably anxious about an upcoming exam, with the potential for flunking ever salient. Such a pessimistic outlook, if entertained early enough, may have led to a great deal of studying and preparation in order to minimize the chances of receiving a failing grade, leading to a performance on the exam that far exceeded your expectations.
Acknowledging the notion that optimism and positive thinking might hinder performance does not, however, imply that negative thinking and pessimism is the optimal strategy for success. Rather, researchers have endorsed a hybrid theory which recommends blending positive thinking with a healthy dose of realism. This can be applied by spending a few minutes vividly imagining a wish coming true, followed by a few minutes imagining all of the potential obstacles that might get in the way. This process, referred to as mental contrasting (Oettingen, 2014), has produced powerful results in experiments, leaving participants feeling more energized and subsequently resulting in greater success, compared to groups tasked with positive thinking alone.
So the next time you are faced with a challenge, expect to succeed, but also prepare for the various contingencies that might get in your way. As Zig Ziglar famously stated, “Expect the best. Prepare for the worst.”
Oettingen, G. (2014, October 24). The Problem with Positive Thinking. Retrieved from nytimes.com .
Graham Martin, MA
WKPIC Doctoral Intern