Contrary to popular opinion, if you think positively, you might actually be doing yourself more harm than good.
According to research from Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University, the more we think positively, the less we actually achieve. Why? "Positive thinking impedes performance because it relaxes us and drains the energy we need to take action," Oettingen says in Aeon.
She goes on to explain: "Such relaxation occurs because 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."
I can relate. With my current poetry project, a book I'm aiming to complete by December, I envision all the good things that come from a published book - the launch, the touring, even how I'd design the cover. I'm proud of a few of the poems I've written so far, but I can feel myself relax too easily. These days, I feel like I'm behind on tackling the bulk of the work, and I can see how my positive thinking may have had that affect on me.
Instead, what I should be doing, what we all should be doing, is mental contrasting. Oettingen explains it like this: "Combining positive fantasies with thoughts about the realities in their path might do the trick. If we could ground positive fantasies in reality, perhaps we could negate the soothing, lulling quality of these fantasies and stir people to action."
This type of thinking primes us to tackle challenges that seem possible to overcome, and to shy away from obstacles that we believe are insurmountable. It comes down to realistic vs unrealistic goals, and snagging those achievable wins.
So in my case, instead of the daunting task ahead of completing a book of poetry, I'm chipping away at it. I'm aiming to write a new poem every week, even if it's a shitty first draft. Even if it's a haiku. I don't want to feel defeated by the overwhelming task ahead of writing dozens of poems by December, so instead of carving up the coming weeks to make this goal achievable.
And I'm refraining from fantastical thoughts of book launches and goodreads.com accolades. I'm focusing more on what's stopping me from writing more, whether it's journalistic tasks or social outings or just laziness. Heck, I've watched every episode of Party Down in the past two weeks but haven't written a poem I'm proud of...and that kind of behaviour needs to change.
I'm curious what you think about positive thinking. Feel free to comment below or tweet me @SilverbergDave
About David's Blog
I write about journalism, freelancing, the arts, Toronto, technology, sports and why egg nog is under-rated.