STREET DOGS

Business Day - - THE BOTTOM LINE - Michel Pireu (pireum@street­dogs.co.za)

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.”

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