You might believe that reaching your goal of having the perfect relationship, getting that promotion you want, or running your first half-marathon simply comes down to thinking of the outcome positively, believing you can do it, and that it will happen. Unfortunately, all of that optimism won’t necessarily translate into fulfilled wishes, according to research in the new book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, by Gabriele Oettingen (Current 2014, Amazon.com). Throughout her years as a psychology professor at New York University and the University of Hamburg, Oettingen uses 20 years of research studying human motivation to come to the conclusion that we need a new way to envision our future, practicing a technique called mental contrasting. This technique is a way to visualize our dreams while identifying obstacles that might impede our progress. Here, we spoke to Oettingen about her book and how you can best apply this method to your daily life so you can reach those goals you dream about.
Question: Can you simplify “mental contrasting” for our readers?
Gabriele Oettingen: Mental contrasting is a scientifically tested strategy to fulfill your wishes and solve your concerns.
Question: What were you most surprised by with your research findings?
GO: We didn’t come across mental contrasting just by having an idea, moreso that we found the problematic consequence with sheer positive thinking. Many of us believe that positive thinking in general is good and I did, too. However, the data taught me that the effects of positive thinking are not that easy and straightforward. In fact, we found that the more people positively fantasized about a desired future, the less effort they put into reaching it and the less successful they were. However, in subsequent experiments we realized that those who start with an understanding of their dreams and wishes and experiencing those in the front of their mind, but at the same time consider the obstacles that are in the way, those are the people who are most prudent and successful. Then we played along and wanted to find the ingredient in mental contrasting that is most effective and we discovered that mental contrasting triggers cognitive and motivational changes, outside of our awareness, that in turn help us change our behavior and fulfil our wishes. The core of fulfilling our wishes is not just positive thinking but positive thinking and understanding your obstacles.
Question: Why is it that people who define themselves as “positive” are not reaching their goals? What’s interfering?
GO: Positive thinking can be hurtful when it comes to reaching the desired future. People experience themselves being already there and they do not realize that they actually need to shoulder quite a bit of hardships if they want to realize their goals and fulfill their wishes. By feigning that they are already there, they relax and develop little energy to go the hard way. Also, they don’t plan how to deal with the obstacles and when the hindrances get in the way they are unprepared.
Question: Is that the difference between the desired future and present reality that you discuss in the book?
GO: Let me give you an example. You might have a wish that you have the article you are working on completed and then you imagine that the piece turned out great, you feel how satisfying it will be and that everyone is complimenting you. You mentally experience that positive outcome. If you stay in experiencing this positive outcome, you feel good, so why not get yourself a cup of coffee or call a friend—you are done, right? You don’t burden yourself with thoughts of what actually might stand in the way of your actually writing a good article and experiencing all the joy! But if you want to obtain the energy to do all the things that lead to actually realizing your wish, you need to understand what’s in the way. This is where mental contrasting comes in, or WOOP, which stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan.
That is, you name the best outcome and imagine it, then you name the obstacle in yourself standing in the way of fulfilling your wish and experiencing that outcome, you identify and imagine that obstacle, and finally you form an “if obstacle,” then I will “do this behavior” to overcome the obstacle “plan.” Let us go through the four-step process more slowly: What is your dearest wish? Say it in a few words. What is the best outcome? Again, summarize that in two to three words. How will you feel? Can you imagine that feeling? Imagine how wonderful that feeling would be. Once you’ve imagined that, then shift gears, and ask yourself, what is it in you that stands in the way? What is your main obstacle? Dig deeper, get rid of your excuses, ask yourself what is it really that stands in the way? Imagine that obstacle vividly. Then identify what you can do to overcome that obstacle [behavior]. Say, “If [obstacle], then I will [do the behavior to overcome obstacle].” And imagine the obstacle and the behavior. You can WOOP every morning before you start your day, in stressful times, or when you feel things you want to savor in life a little more. Ask yourself, What is my dearest wish for today, what do I want to really want for today? Then WOOP this wish. You can WOOP it in your mind, using the app, or by writing down your thoughts and images.
Question: Can you tackle more than one goal at the same time—like losing weight and trying to get your finances in order?
GO: It is better not to put several wishes into one WOOP. Come up with one wish that’s very dear to you. It can be something that is long-term or short-term, grand or trivial, but you should feel it’s potentially feasible. What is important for long-term change is that you build WOOP into your daily life, into your daily routine. By WOOPing regularly you will discover a lot about your wishes and how to fulfil them. It’s a discovery tour, you will unveil a lot, which you had not known about yourself. You may try the tool and download the WOOP app on your mobile device.
If you choose to write down the WOOP, be specific about the wish, outcome, obstacle, and plan. Make sure it’s your wish; don’t let others influence you. You know best what your wish, outcome, obstacle, and plan is. You are the expert of your life. Identifying the desired future and imagining it will give you direction to act, finding the obstacle and the means to overcome it, will give you the energy to act.