An important article by psychologist and author, Gabriele Oettingen appeared in the New York Times with a misleading title,“ The Problem with Positive Thinking.”
Actually what Dr. Oettingen offers is an important fine-tuning of positive thinking. What she suggests based on her research is not that positive thinking is problematic, but that positive thinking about a goal without a plan—be it about losing weight, passing the test, or finding a job- leaves you likely to fail. She suggests that positive thinking alone may “fool our minds into perceiving” that we have attained the goal.
The solution is not negative thinking but what she calls “ mental contrasting.”
- Oettingen invites us to spend a few minutes thinking about our dream and then a few minutes balancing that with a focus on the obstacles to that goal.
- She reports that the result is a use of the positive thinking to energize us to develop a plan to overcome obstacles and attain achievable goals. Once we start to move on this path, we are further energized. Research found this technique to have better results that all negative or all positive thinking.
Essentially Gabrielle Oettingen’s message here and elaborated in her book, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, does not negate positive thinking–it expands it. It operationalizes positive thinking as a motivator to making a plan that overcomes obstacles to a goal.
- As parents it invites us to follow the superlatives we give to our children like “ You can do this!” “ You have to believe in yourself!” with a necessary follow-up invitation, “ What steps can you take now to try out for the team?”
- With respect to our relationships, we might consider that daydreams about a better relationship lead to disappointment unless they translate into into a plan that offers us steps for change.
For me, a poignant example of positive thinking with a plan, comes from Jerome Groopman’s book, The Anatomy of Hope.
In it Groopman describes the case of an esteemed physician, Dr. George Griffin, known worldwide as an expert on stomach cancer. When George himself is diagnosed with a deadly form of stomach cancer, the treatment he demands is so harsh that as the staff watches him dying in ICU from the impact, they wonder why he choose it.
When Groopman visits him 13 years later, he asks Dr. Griffin why he would take such a chance. Dr. Griffin answers that he knew the risks and the odds of the treatment; but for as long as he could hold on to a shred of hope, his plan was to fight the cancer—he was not going down without a fight.
We need the positive thinking to risk trying and we need to try to make our dreams possible.