Still thinking positive?
Moreover, as the journalist Oliver Burkeman noted in “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking,” “Ceaseless optimism about the future only makes for a greater shock when things go wrong; by fighting to maintain only positive beliefs about the future, the positive thinker ends up being less prepared, and more acutely distressed when things eventually happen that he can’t persuade himself to believe are good.”
Burkeman is onto something. According to a great deal of research, positive fantasies may lessen your chances of succeeding. In one experiment, the social psychologists Gabriele Oettingen and Doris Mayer asked eighty-three German students to rate the extent to which they “experienced positive thoughts, images, or fantasies on the subject of transition into work life, graduating from university, looking for and finding a job.” Two years later, they approached the same students and asked about their post-college job experiences. Those who harboured positive fantasies put in fewer job applications received fewer job offers and ultimately earned lower salaries. The same was true in other contexts, too. Students who fantasized were less likely to ask their romantic crushes on a date and more likely to struggle academically. Hip-surgery patients also recovered more slowly when they dwelled on positive fantasies of walking without pain.
Heather Barry Kappes, a management professor at the London School of Economics, has published similar research with Oettingen. I asked Kappes why fantasies hamper progress, and she told me that they dull the will to succeed: “Imagining a positive outcome conveys the sense that you’re approaching your goals, which takes the edge off the need to achieve.” Oettingen and Kappes asked two groups of undergraduates to imagine the coming week. One group fantasized that the week would go as well as possible, whereas the other group conjured a more neutral version of the week. One week later, when the students returned to the lab, the positive fantasizers felt that they had accomplished less over the previous week.
I asked Oettingen whether positive fantasies might sometimes be useful. She suggested that they might if a person considered the specific steps that he would take to overcome the barriers to success. Kappes said that fantasies might be useful when you’re unable to satisfy a need-when you’re famished and hours from eating, for example-because they temporarily blunt the pang. There’s nothing wrong with getting lost in fantasy, as long as you aren’t ultimately hoping to indulge in the real thing.
But, while positive thinking doesn’t work, positive action does — provided it’s well guided:
Real progress requires four key elements:
You Need Feedback
You Need Measurable Progress
You Need Accountability
You Need To Be Realistic
Which, somewhat ironically, is why it’s only disillusioned positive thinkers that go for counselling instead.
They want all four of the above…