The Pros and Cons of Positive Thinking

What’s the best way to gear up for a new habit? There are two common approaches. One is to imagine the positive outcome of solving a given problem. The other is to ponder what about your current situation makes you unhappy and what the solution to your problem might look like.

Gabriele Oettingen of New York University decided to test these ideas against each other. She ran an experiment in which she divided her subjects into three groups and gave them the same problem. The first group was told to start by indulging themselves, fantasizing about having solved it. The second group was told to dwell on the negative consequences of not solving the problem.

The last group, however, was told to do both: to envision the satisfaction of resolving the problem, then to focus on the harm done by not resolving it. Finally, they were to contrast their imagined positive outcome with the current negative reality.

It turned out that when expectations of success were high, the third group performed best. However, when expectations of success were very low, this same group invested less in planning and backed away from taking responsibility for the outcome.

Oettingen theorized that, as is often the case in business and life, people tend to do a cost-benefit analysis of potential outcomes and gear their actions accordingly. It seems they operate under the same principles when deciding how much energy to devote to building a new habit.

Motivation is a necessary force, spurring you forward towards any goal. Countless books and articles tout the benefit of positive thinking as a catalyst, but in Oettingen’s book Rethinking Positive Thinking, she notes that research suggests this only takes you so far. It’s true that fantasizing about achieving a goal can lower blood pressure, compelling us into a state sometimes associated with the positive effects of meditation. Nobody is arguing that daydreaming doesn’t feel good.

But here is where we get into dangerous, and potentially counterproductive, territory. The brain is so good at daydreaming that it can fool itself, removing urgency because on some level it believes you have already crossed that finish line. Dream too much and you can find yourself postponing the journey indefinitely.

This isn’t to say we should chuck out wishful thinking altogether. Oettingen writes that it can be a useful tool, provided you add a few more steps to the process. She’s even created a mnemonic device: WOOP.

W stands for wishful thinking, which, as we’ve explained, is a useful starting point. Before you start in on a new habit, you want to get excited, to get the adrenalin and dopamine flowing.

O is for outcomes. Oettingen believes that, beyond vague dreams of excellence, a clearly defined goal requires specifics. The greater the specificity, the easier it will be to develop a concrete plan for coding in a new habit. Wanting to become a long-distance runner is one thing; aiming to compete in a certain marathon on a certain date—and following a marathon training plan to get you there—is quite another.

The next O stands for obstacles. Here is the all-important reality check: by anticipating setbacks, you can gauge the likelihood of success and get a jump on overcoming issues as they arise in your quest to maintain that habit.

Taken together, the WOO of WOOP brings you to what Oettingen calls “mental contrasting”—honestly examining the nuts and bolts of what ABC Sports used to call “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

P is for plan, or “implementation intention” as Oettingen puts it. The two main ingredients are specifics and an if-then statement: if I get the urge to watch TV, then I’ll go for a short walk before I tackle my writing assignment. The key is to be detailed and yet general enough that you can easily initiate the new behavior.

This approach helps you thwart potentially habit-crushing distractions, sustain motivation, and trigger the desired action. If I don’t feel like jogging this morning, then I’ll listen to some upbeat rock for a few minutes to get myself pumped up before I hit the pavement.

Keep in mind that you don’t want to link implementation intentions to a particular time of day (If it’s six in the morning, then I’ll start jogging). This constricts you from starting earlier and, should the clock tick over to 6:02, gives you permission to wait until tomorrow, handing the baton off once again to Future Self.

If-then statements dovetail beautifully into JB Fogg’s “tiny habits” philosophy: If I’m brushing my teeth, then I’ll floss afterwards. It formalizes and helps crystallize the intended behavior. 

You can also try out some if-then-then statements, piggybacking multiple actions on your “if”: If I enter the weight lifting room of the gym, then I’ll do leg lifts, bench presses, and pull-ups.

 Good luck!