This is somewhat a continuation from the previous post where I ended with the question “Does that mean we should not set big goals and dream big?”
Conventional self-help literature teaches us that we can achieve anything by just thinking positively, and if we are going to think ahead, we might as well think positive and think big!
We are often taught to ignore the cynics, get rid of negative thinking, and to “Dream the Impossible”. Friends or associates who offer pragmatic advice are often labelled as “dream killers” or “haters”.
“The substituting of a kind of ”positive hypnotism” for a previous habit of “negative hypnotism” may appear at least to have short-range benefits, but I have always found that the honeymoon ends all too soon.” – Tim Gallwey, creator of The Inner Game
Ironically, from my experience working with athletes and numerous research studies, “positive thinking” is one of the main culprits that often hinders the progress and potential of athletes.
What the Science Tells us…
Martin Seligman, founder of Positive Psychology conceives optimism as expectations about the future that are based on past experiences of successes, that is, it is more logical to assess how the future will work out based on what we have known thus far.
His research showed that positive fantasies detached from an assessment of past experience did not translate to motivation to act. In fact, it translated into the opposite. People were literally dreaming themselves to a standstill, or constantly distracted by worries about not being able to achieve their dream.
“A few minutes of fantasizing was enough to deflate their energy and thus performance for the following week.”
Experimental psychologists Gabriele Oettingen (Author of Rethinking Positive Thinking), and Heather Kappes confirmed that positive fantasies make us especially unfit to handle tasks that require sustained and concrete effort. Participants in experiments had lower systolic blood pressure (used to measure how energized or motivated someone is) after positive fantasies.
A few minutes of fantasizing was enough to deflate their energy and thus performance for the following week. This was in contrast to conventional wisdom which holds that dreams are supposed to hype us up and not calm us down. As we are dreaming, our minds are fooled into thinking that we have attained that future even though everything in reality still remains undone.
You will be ill advised to indulge in positive fantasies about achieving your goals and then assume that you are well on your path to success. Life just does not work out that way. The conclusion isn’t to do away with dreaming either, but rather, we need to make the most of it by brushing them against the very thing that we are taught to ignore or diminish: the obstacles that stand in our way. This is difficult at first since we are so often dissuaded from taking honest looks at ourselves.
Gabriele Oettingen refers to the above as Mental Contrasting. Participants in her experiments who contrasted their dreams with the obstacles reported to be more energized compared to the “dreamers”. Participants who had expectations based on past experiences that they would succeed became even more significantly energized. For participants who had mentally contrasted success less likely, they were less energized and tend to either disengaged from or re-evaluate their goals.
“Falling in love with an impossible dream is one of the most effective ways to NOT realize your own potential.” Gabriele Oettingen
It seems people benefit most from pursuing not just any wish but one that is feasible. Mental Contrasting could help people engage more forcefully when it made sense for people to engage, and disengage when clearly that made more sense.
It serves as a self-regulation tool helping people direct their energy more efficiently so they did not merely pursue wishes but wisely pursed them. It helps you to decide which wishes to pursue and which to leave behind. You can read more about Dr. Oettingen’s experiments in her book Rethinking Positive Thinking, visit www.woopmylife.org, or watch this video to find out more!
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