We’ve been told that positive thinking creates miracles. But wait, there’s more!
The classic advice is for us to spend a great deal of time visualizing in our mind whatever it is that we wish for while paying little or no attention to the obstacles and limitations. There are even books promising that we can get what we desire by simply using the law of attraction. No effort required.
The book "Rethinking Positive Thinking" by psychology professor Gabrielle Oettinger offers an opposite point of view, but perhaps a more effective method.
To dream or to do?
In numerous experiments, Dr. Oettinger and her team proved that the more people engaged in “positive fantasies”, the less success they had in real life. She wrote, “In the face of a big challenge or chore, people often fantasize about how it feels to have achieved it. In the moment, the fantasy feels good, and it also feels relaxing —so much that we don’t take action.” She noted that many dreamers are not doers.
Her studies show that when we are in denial of the roadblocks, we don’t take appropriate action to hurdle them. Our positive visualization may also “fool our mind” with the illusion that the problem has been resolved. In many experiments, she found that patients who spent too much time imagining themselves having easily recovered from illness became too reassured so that they exerted less effort to actually recover.
In one of her studies, people who were asked to mentally visualize a happy resolution of a major problem in Sierra Leone said they were willing to donate only $1. In contrast, those who were only told about the painful facts and did not visualize a happy ending were willing to donate $25. The realistic point of view compelled more involvement.
I am reminded of a communication theory I learned back in graduate school. It’s called the theory of “narcotizing dysfunction” featured in an article by Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton. It assumes that people who have learned a lot about a particular issue eventually become apathetic as knowledge takes the place of action. The theory surely got its name from the habit of taking drugs to “make the problem go away.”
Dr. Oettinger likewise proved that the ones who succeed the most are those who think positively but also plan on how to overcome the barriers. She calls it mental contrasting. “Simply put…adding a bit of realism to people’s positive imagining of the future.” People who measure their chances of success against the barriers are more motivated to take action, studies show.
Hopeful vs Optimistic
This was also the conclusion of Dr. Shane J. Lopez, a former senior scientist at Gallup.You surely already know that Gallup is the world’s oldest and most known polling organization.
In his book "Making Hope Happen", Dr. Lopez differentiated between being “hopeful” and being “optimistic”. He wrote, “You’re optimistic if you think the future will be better than the present, “you stay on the sunny side”…you’re hopeful if you think the future will be better and you have a role in making it so.” Throughout the book, Dr. Lopez emphasized the need to have plans and actions to make hope happen.
The positive side of positive thinking
To be fair, Both Oettinger and Lopez did not debunk positive thinking and daydreaming. They agree that positive mental imagery can be the beginning of motivation. Daydreams let us know what kind of future resonates with us. They help us hold on when times are testing our faith. They prevent us from getting depressed.
Positive self-talk may not actually change our facial features or our body type. But telling ourselves in the mirror that we look good will help boost our self-confidence. And self-confidence opens doors.
I am a big believer in positive thinking. But my version starts with a sense of gratitude. Upon waking up and at every opportunity, I think of all the things I should be grateful for. I thank God for my talents, and the people who love and support me. Then I begin to feel confident that I have the ability to make things better. Belief in one’s ability is called “self-efficacy” and it makes all the difference.
I have been a daydreamer since I was a child. I daydreamed for most parts of my life. Rest of the time, I practiced the talents I wanted to develop. If I may offer advice:
Believe in your dreams. Believe in yourself. Wake up early in the morning to get things done.
(You may also read "Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Undermines" America by Barbara Ehrenreich )
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About the Author:
Robert Labayen spent 22 years in advertising prior to joining ABS-CBN in 2004. He was VP-Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi and Executive Creative Director at J. Walter Thompson, two of the country's leading ad agencies. He is currently the Head of Creative Communications Management at ABS-CBN. His job involves inspiring people to be their best. He is a writer, painter and songwriter.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.