Sunday, October 26, 2014

Happy Thought Meets the Work Ethic

When Aaron Beck invented cognitive therapy he prescribed homework exercises that would help depressed patients restore some balance to their thinking.

It was better than introspection and turned out to be as good as Prozac.

Beck told his patients to write down a depressive thought—like “I never get anything right”—and to add three facts that tend to prove the thought correct and three thoughts that tend to disprove it.

To the extent that these exercises, performed repeatedly, worked, they did so because they replaced pessimism with balance. They offered a place for more optimistic thinking but they did not replace unalloyed pessimism with unalloyed optimism.

I have made the point before, and have made it often. It is worth making again because some cognitive therapists believe that positive thinking, aka happy thought, is enough.

Gabriele Oettingen explains in The New York Times:

MANY people think that the key to success is to cultivate and doggedly maintain an optimistic outlook. This belief in the power of positive thinking, expressed with varying degrees of sophistication, informs everything from affirmative pop anthems like Katy Perry’s “Roar” to the Mayo Clinic’s suggestion that you may be able to improve your health by eliminating “negative self-talk.”

But the truth is that positive thinking often hinders us. More than two decades ago, I conducted a study in which I presented women enrolled in a weight-reduction program with several short, open-ended scenarios about future events — and asked them to imagine how they would fare in each one. Some of these scenarios asked the women to imagine that they had successfully completed the program; others asked them to imagine situations in which they were tempted to cheat on their diets. I then asked the women to rate how positive or negative their resulting thoughts and images were.

A year later, I checked in on these women. The results were striking: The more positively women had imagined themselves in these scenarios, the fewer pounds they had lost.

If positive thinking means filling your mind with fantasies of success, it does not work very well. Apparently, the good feeling that accompanies the fantasy demotivates people. Or else, they might believe that with the right mental attitude the rest will follow naturally.

Proponents of happy thought do not seem to recognize that people need to work to achieve their goals. Happy thought without a plan does not work.

To balance happy thought with work, Oettigen and her colleagues ask their subjects to imagine the obstacles that will stand in the way of achievement. 

Beyond their ability to see themselves succeeding, they would set about making a plan for how they were going to overcome the obstacles to success.

Almost by definition, work means expending effort to overcome obstacles.

Moreover, she adds, your wishes must be realistically attainable. You cannot use happy thought, even accompanied by hard work, to make yourself into Charles Barkley.

In Oettingen’s words:

Some critics of positive thinking have advised people to discard all happy talk and “get real” by dwelling on the challenges or obstacles. But this is too extreme a correction. Studies have shown that this strategy doesn’t work any better than entertaining positive fantasies.

What does work better is a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with “realism.” Here’s how it works. Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.

This simple process, which my colleagues and I call “mental contrasting,” has produced powerful results in laboratory experiments. When participants have performed mental contrasting with reasonable, potentially attainable wishes, they have come away more energized and achieved better results compared with participants who either positively fantasized or dwelt on the obstacles.

When participants have performed mental contrasting with wishes that are not reasonable or attainable, they have disengaged more from these wishes. Mental contrasting spurs us on when it makes sense to pursue a wish, and lets us abandon wishes more readily when it doesn’t, so that we can go after other, more reasonable ambitions.

Again, Aaron Beck’s homework exercises introduced more than balanced judgment; they required work. When you are depressed and are persuaded that you are worthless, you will need to expend some energy and to overcome some obstacles to find any reason to think otherwise.

By definition, homework is work. A patient who overcomes depression by performing these exercises has worked to defeat the mental obstacles that have been preventing him from succeeding.

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