Why Positive Thinking Is Holding You Back--and What To Do Instead

November 18, 2016

What could be wrong with positive thinking? Shouldn’t you maintain an optimistic belief in your success when you set out to achieve something? After all, popular culture is full of inspirational quotes like:

“If you can dream it, you can do it.”

 “Leap and the net will appear.”

“Wishing makes it so.”

While these quotes may make you feel good, they fall short when it comes to the practicalities of figuring out how to “make it so.” Instead of spending time only visualizing, wishing, or dreaming about achieving a goal, there is a system that can make you more likely to achieve your goals and dreams.

It’s called mental contrasting.

Mental contrasting is a visualization technique developed by researcher and professor Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues, and is discussed at length in the book Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation

Daydreaming all by itself, according to Oettingen, makes people less likely to realize their dreams and wishes. Why? Because, she writes, “The pleasurable act of dreaming seems to let us fulfill our wishes in our minds, sapping our energy to perform the hard work of meeting the challenges in real life.”

We shouldn’t stop dreaming altogether, though. In fact, dreaming is a big part of mental contrasting. However, it goes beyond the simple dreaming stage into more practical waters.

This brings us to the handy little acronym WOOP, which stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. According to woopmylife.org, “WOOP can support all areas of behavior change. It is for people who feel stuck and don’t know what to do. It is also for people whose lives seem just fine but who feel they can do better. And it is for people who face a particular challenge or transition….Use WOOP to excel at work, promote good health, enjoy relationships more, and live a happier life.”

According to woopmylife.org, the four steps of WOOP work like this:

  1. Wish. Choose a wish or goal that is important and challenging for you, but one that also feels doable within the next four weeks.
  2. Outcome. What is the best possible outcome if you were to fulfill your wish? How would you feel? Imagine this as fully as you can.
  3. Obstacle. What is the biggest obstacle within you that stands between you and your wish? Figure out what that is, then take a moment to imagine that fully.
  4. Plan. Once you know what stands in your way, take some time to figure out at least one way you can overcome it. Create an “if/then” plan: “If…, then I will…”

If you want to try WOOP, click here for a template to use for planning purposes. There’s also an app and a “woop kit.” 

Just as The Upside of Stress changed and broadened my thinking about stress, Rethinking Positive Thinking gave me a new way to plan and execute goals and dreams, and I wanted to share it with you. For most people, happiness includes growth and accomplishment. Mental contrasting is one tool likely to help you with that facet of life. All the vision boards in the world will not help you if you do not act. Wishing does not make it so. But WOOPing just might.

For more information, here is a short video explaining the science behind WOOP:

What goal, wish, or dream would you like to “WOOP”?

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  1. Excellent! I do know that STEPS are needed, action, not just dreaming...Not as romantic or fun maybe, but so real...

    I will look for the Upsdie of Stress, thank you. What I can see that stress is doing for me at the moment is making my adrenaline run so that I'm working to carry on with the positive parts of my life, even though there is a huge stressor right now....the alternative is to cave and give in to discouragement and the problem....

  2. Kathy this is a great concept you have discovered. Went over to the WOOP site. This sounds like a great strategy for accomplishing one's goals. Thank you for sharing. Have a super weekend. Hugs!

  3. Rita--Hopefully The Upside of Stress will help during your stressful time. I see that you're already looking for the upside in how you're feeling. Sending you good thoughts and a virtual hug. This, too, shall pass.

  4. Debbie--It's such a simple concept, really. It doesn't take very long to put into practice. Now if I'd just follow my own advice and put it into practice!

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