What’s the first thing people say when you tell them you have a seemingly impossible challenge ahead? “Just believe in yourself. Think positively.” The sentiment is everywhere in our culture—from R. Kelly’s hit song “I Believe I Can Fly” to best-selling books such as Chicken Soup for the Soul and The Secret. Pop psychologists have been telling us for decades that imagining your ideal future will somehow help you to achieve it.

NYU psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen originally bought into this notion, too. Living in West Germany, she’d often witness the economic and social hardships of her neighbors living east of the Berlin Wall, but discovered in them a great capacity for hope and daydreams. As a scientist with an interest in psychology, she set out to understand if and how our thoughts ultimately influence our actions.  

In Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, Oettingen reveals decades of research on the mechanics of wish fulfillment—suggesting that contrary to popular belief, positive thinking might actually hinder us by feigning goal attainment and creating a feeling of satisfaction that consequently drains us of motivational energy. 

photo: Gabriele Oettingen

“In dreaming it, you undercut the energy you need to do it,” writes Oettingen. “You put yourself in a temporary state of bliss, calmness—and lethargy.” The New Yorker calls the work a “provocative new analysis,” but the book is also written much like a letter to a friend—inviting the reader to participate in thought experiments that (along with apps named WOOP—for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan) might help one get practical about quitting smoking, losing weight, or improving your GPA.

Oettingen came to the United States in the late 1980s to study under Martin E. P. Seligman, founder of the positive psychology movement, and was surprised to discover that colleagues in the field generally accepted that “hope” was synonymous with “optimism.” This puzzled Oettingen, who came to realize that “people did not differentiate between the likelihood that certain events would happen in the future, and sheer daydreams.” 

book cover: "Rethinking Positive Thinking"

Wanting to understand the relationship between positive thinking and motivation, Oettingen set out to do some research of her own. An experimental study revealed that a group of women who were asked to imagine positive experiences of wearing high-heeled shoes saw a drop in their systolic blood pressure—a measure of energy or motivation—indicating a connection between fantasy and diminished momentum.  

Another study asked 117 college students to write down what they wished to achieve in school and to what extent they believed it was possible. Oettingen found that the more students envisioned performing well on exams the less they achieved—and the less they had studied.

With this in mind, Oettingen began to develop her own theory: Instead of just thinking positively, one should employ the self-regulation strategy of mental contrasting—the act of weighing your envisioned goal against what you identify as your inner obstacle to be. According to her research, this method clarifies what you really want and what’s feasible, as opposed to goals you’d rather let go or are unlikely to accomplish. For example, a woman who wished to exercise more overcame her laziness by concentrating on the obstacle—a perceived "hatred" of going to the gym. By reminding herself that exercise was not a chore but something she wanted to do, she soon found the activity to be more desirable and less oppressive.

While the response from peers and fans alike has been overwhelmingly favorable, Oettingen notes that her theory has met with some resistance. “Positive thinking is pleasurable, and people want to believe that the pleasure is also creating positive results. It’s not so easy to look at the facts and realize that your wishes can be really cumbersome to achieve,” she says. “The solution isn’t to do away with dreaming and positive thinking,” she writes. “Rather, it’s making the most of our fantasies by brushing them up against the very thing most of us are taught to ignore or diminish: the obstacles that stand in our way.”