Always look on the bright side of life, right? Not exactly.
According to NYU professor and motivation psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, overly positive thinking could be getting in our way on the path to success. Consider shelving that copy of “The Secret,” curb the instinct to embrace the power of positive thinking and check out the latest technique to help you be the best version of yourself – mental contrasting.
In her new book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, Oettingen explains that positive future visualization (daydreaming) sets folks up to fall short of desired outcomes. With anything from wanting to get a promotion or lose a few pounds, simply fantasizing about a positive future is not enough. Studies show that people who use positive thinking as a strategy to accomplish goals make significantly less progress than those who do not and are less likely to tackle the more difficult challenges to achieve success.¹
The practice of mental contrasting is the in same vein as positive thinking. Simply put, it’s a visualization technique that encourages people to develop specific, positive expectations and focus on the obstacles between you and those expectations. It’s best practiced daily, but can be used whenever needed. Oettingen notes that even though mental contrasting encourages a sense of realism by acknowledging and confronting hurdles, folks should not scale down their goals. In other words, dream big, but then buckle down on your execution.
For example, say I wanted to be a vice president at my company in two years; I could practice mental contrasting by taking the following steps:
1. Write down my goal and all of the positive aspects that would come from accomplishing that goal. I would make a huge leap in my career path, make more money, boast a fancy title, feel more confident about myself, get to mentor junior employees, etc.
See? The more detailed, the better
2. Focus on the most positive aspects of achieving the goal. For example: I would likely benefit most from the step up on the career ladder and the higher salary.
Think about all of the specifics of these aspects. Why are they the biggest motivators? How would achieving these things make you feel?
3. Focus on the biggest obstacles. In order to become a vice president in two years, I will need to exceed expectations and provide noticeable value to the organization. I will have to take on projects to demonstrate competency and leadership abilities. I will likely be required to work longer hours and take on projects outside of my comfort zone. I ought to take any opportunity available to develop relationships with C-level executives and make efforts to take part in professional development outside of the workplace at conferences, networking events, etc.
This last one will likely be the most difficult of the steps!
4. Specifically identify the steps I must take to reach my goal. This will take thoughtful — and realistic — consideration and commitment.
Though we’ve long-thought positive thinking was a tried and true philosophy, the transition to mental contrasting is a logical next step. This new practice pushes people to get their head out of the clouds and carefully align their goals with the real-life steps it will take to make their dreams a reality.
¹Positive Fantasies About Idealized Futures Sap Energy, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2011