This psychologist’s research shows that staying motivated to be your best self requires both positive thinking and an honest assessment of obstacles.
Posted in , Sep 22, 2017
If you’re reading this post in a blog called “A Positive Path,” you are probably persuaded by the idea that positive thinking benefits us in ways ranging from physical health to relationship and career success. But if you’re like me, you endeavor to do your positive thinking in the real world—the world that often confronts us with obstacles and challenges.
I recently read Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, the 2014 book by the psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, and her research points toward a truth that makes perfect sense to me. Positive fantasies—imagining and visualizing the outcomes we want to achieve in life—are important, and they feel good. But it’s only when we pair those fantasies with reality-based assessment of the obstacles we face that we become motivated to take action and, ultimately, achieve our goals.
In 2001, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I wasn’t a good candidate for chemo. I took tamoxifen instead and gave my trouble to God—just as Dr. Peale suggested in his book, "Thought Conditioners". Since then I’ve remained cancer free. -Guideposts Magazine reader
In experiment after experiment over decades at New York University and the University of Hamburg, Oettingen’s research shows that those who indulge in positive fantasy alone don’t actually get much done. Neither to those who dwell on the possible negative outcomes they could encounter. Those who are the most motivated, successful and happy are those who travel a middle road that at times veers toward the positive, and at times considers life’s obstacles.
Rethinking Positive Thinking chronicles Oettingen’s research, and offers a practical technique readers can use to apply her findings to their lives. Technically, it’s called “mental contrasting,” but its far more fun name is WOOP, which stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle and Plan. Here’s a brief description of how to do WOOP on paper:
“On a blank sheet of paper, name the wish in three to six words. Identify the best outcome (also in three to six words) and write it down. Now let your thoughts lead your pen, taking as much paper as you need. Then name your obstacle, again letting your thoughts wander and lead your writing. To create a plan, first write down one specific action you can take to overcome the obstacle. Write down the time and place when you believe the obstacle will arise. Then write down the if-then plan: ‘If obstacle x occurs (when and where), then I will perform behavior y.’” Repeat it once to yourself out loud.”
Can WOOP help your life? How do you balance positive thinking with realistic consideration of your challenges?