Positive thinking has been touted as an antidote to negative thinking. After Freud taught us to think the worst of ourselves and others, cognitive psychologists asserted that people did better with a more positive outlook on life.
To my mind, they were saying that we do well to introduce balance in our thinking. Being too positive, to the exclusion of dangers and failures is as self-defeating as being too negative, to the exclusion of success and happiness.
Apparently, Oprah picked up this idea and told her audience that they would do better in life if they learned how to think positively.
I suspect that this is a caricature of Oprah’s position, but even if it isn’t, don’t psychologists have anything better to do than to try to disprove Oprah?
Of course, it takes more than happy thoughts to formulate and implement a plan of action. You are not going to reach a goal without having a plan of action and without knowing how to follow it.
So far, so good.
As often happens with these research studies, the terms tend to be poorly defined and the problem tends to be poorly conceptualized.
Examine the thinking of NYU Professor Gabriele Oettingen. Here she tells us how to achieve our goals.
In Melissa Dahl’s report Oettingen begins thusly:
Wish: First, define your goal. "Think about a wish that is dear to you," Oettingen said. "What is it you really want? This could be a big, New Year's–resolution-type ambition, like running a marathon or losing a certain amount of weight, but it doesn't have to be. "I do it every morning for the next day," Oettingen said on the podcast. Your wish doesn't have to be huge; it just has to be real, something you truly want.
Of course, something that is real and something that you truly want are not necessarily the same thing. And, let’s not forget, as I mentioned yesterday, that, by the reason of who you really are, you have talents and capacities, not to mention duties and obligations to other people.
If you place what you really want ahead of what is the best for your company, for example, you are probably not going to be too happy.
Taking your wish as the gold standard truncates your humanity and sets you apart from other people.
After defining your wish, Oettingen says that you should imagine the outcome:
Outcome: Here's where a little bit of positive thinking sneaks back in. Keeping your goal in mind, ask yourself: If this wish of mine is fulfilled, what is the best possible outcome? "Very often, it is a feeling," Oettingen said. "You define that outcome, and you imagine that outcome. And once you've imagined the outcome, really immerse yourself in these daydreams."
Say what? If the problem with positive thinking is that it detaches you from real actions in the real world, how can you advance your cause by immersing yourself in your daydreams?
True enough, you ought to be able to envision yourself succeeding, but the more you get bogged down in your daydreams the less you will be able to act effectively in the world.
As for what constitutes a good outcome, here again, Oettingen has gone off the conceptual rails. A feeling is not an outcome. A feeling might accompany an outcome… as in, you will feel happy if you win the race or get the raise.
But if your goal is simply to feel the feeling, why not try a chemical substance that will give you a close simulation of the feeling without your having to do anything to achieve a real goal.
But, even Oettingen does not believe that you should become totally absorbed in your daydreams.
Her next step aims at what she calls obstacles:
After you've let yourself fantasize for a little while about what it will feel like when your goal is accomplished, bring your mind back down to reality. "Then you say, What is it in me that holds me back from experiencing that wish, that outcome? " Oettingen said. "Very often it's an emotion, it's those same old habits. ... And you imagine that obstacle."
Precisely what makes her think that you just flick a little switch and then return to reality? It is easier said than done.
Also, emotions and habits are not the same thing.
Oettingen does not want you to get into the trenches and to make it happen. She wants you to indulge yet another bout of introspection. She says that you should look into your mind to find the emotions or habits that are preventing you from achieving your goals.
But, what if your habit of procrastination is preventing you from achieving your goal? What if your sloth is holding you back? What if you lack courage and perseverance?
These are character flaws. They do not just go away because you wish them to go away.
Thinking about what makes things go wrong tends to make things go wrong. Thinking about your bad habits creates a direct struggle between you and your bad habits. As Aristotle said, bad habits are only overcome when they are replaced by good habits.
And besides, what about real obstacles? Why doesn’t the psychologist have any notion of real obstacles or unexpected occurrences that happen when we try to implement a plan.
Plan: "Once you've imagined that obstacle," Oettingen said, "you'll understand what you need to do to overcome it." Come up with an if/then plan — if this obstacle pops up, then you'll do X to get around it and keep going after your goal.
Surely it is a good thing to know what can go wrong and to know what you will do to fix it.
But, making a plan to overcome obstacles is not the same as making a plan to achieve a goal.
Has the psychologist ever seen a business plan? Does she know that no one has ever developed a successful business plan without having a very clear sense of reality, of how things get done?
Also, she has nothing to say about what you do when you have to work with other people. Nothing about her plan suggests what you should do when you encounter people who fail to cooperate, who are difficult to manage or who like doing their own thing.
Dahl reports the Oettingen believes that her therapy produces great benefits:
Oettingen's research has shown that this method has helped people eat more fruits and vegetables; it's also helped students achieve better grades in school, and it has even helped people act less insecure in their romantic relationships.
Nothing is quite as important as helping people to eat more fruits and vegetables. Effectively, her approach seems to be geared to children, real of wanna-be.
But, seriously. I favor any therapy that helps people to function in the world. I am in favor of positive thinking as a balance to negative thinking.
Oettingen’s problem is that she engages in too much sloppy thinking.