Don’t just ‘think positive’

This time of year is full of guff about how to make and keep resolutions. This piece stood out as at least being rather more specific and practical, and rooted in evidence (even if from small scale studies).

What I found particularly interesting was the contention that the bland old exhortation ‘think positive’ can, by missing out the barriers that stand in the way, actually make you less likely to achieve whatever you’re aiming at. What does work, apparently, is this:

[Professor Gabriele] Oettingen has found that a specific method of positive thinking can lead to better outcomes. She calls it mental contrasting. “It starts with identifying a wish,” she explains. The wish can be big or small—a major life change or just a task that needs to be completed today. “And then,” she says, “you identify the best outcome if you fulfill that wish.” That’s where the daydreaming comes in. You fantasize about what your future will be like if you attain your wish.

But don’t stop there, even though it’s enjoyable. Instead, make a serious effort to think about the obstacles that stand in your way. “Now what is it in me that holds me back?” Oettingen says. “What is it actually that stops me from fulfilling that wish and experiencing that outcome?” This is the “contrasting” portion of mental contrasting. Once you identify the obstacle, you go back to fantasy land and imagine what you need to do to overcome that barrier. The last step is to lay out a plan—either by writing it down or simply by thinking about it—that includes both your desired outcome and the ways in which you can overcome the obstacles that have thwarted you in the past.

“We have plenty of experiments which show that this mental contrasting is effective,” says Oettingen. And not just in one domain—mental contrasting works for problems related to your work, your family life, and even your interpersonal relationships.


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