Pop psychology and the self-help industry reinforce the belief that positive thinking can improve our mood and lead to beneficial life changes. But research in psychology suggests that indulging in undirected positive flights of fancy isn’t always in our interest.
“Positive thinking can make us feel better in the short-term,” says Gabriele Oettingen, professor of psychology at New York University, in an Aeon article, “but over the long-term, it saps our motivation, preventing us from achieving our wishes and goals, and leaving us feeling frustrated, stymied and stuck. If we really want to move ahead in our lives, engage with the world and feel energised, we need to go beyond positive thinking and connect as well with the obstacles that stand in our way. By bringing our dreams into contact with reality, we can unleash our greatest energies and make the most progress in our lives.”
In fact, positive thinking is harmful, says Oettingen. “In a number of studies over two decades, my colleagues and I have discovered a powerful link between positive thinking and poor performance. The more that people ‘think positive’ and imagine themselves achieving their goals, the less they actually achieve.
“Positive thinking impedes performance because it relaxes us and drains the energy we need to take action. Positive fantasies fool our minds into thinking that we’ve already achieved our goals – what psychologists call ‘mental attainment’. We achieve our goals virtually and thus feel less need to take action in the real world. As a result, we don’t do what it takes to actually succeed in achieving our goals. In multiple experiments, we found that people who positively fantasise about the future don’t, in fact, work as hard as those with more negative, questioning or factual thoughts, and this leaves them to struggle with poorer performance.”