Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Positive Thinking--a fraud or a solution?

I'm a psychologist who loves positive thinking. I was raised with Dr. Norman Vincent Peale's "The Power of Positive Thinking." I'm a fan of Martin Seligman's "learned optimism" approach, that uses cognitive therapy to turn around negative thinking that can inhibit performance and well-being. Dr. Seligman's "Positive Psychology" modality expanded the focus of psychology from pathology and pain, to the complete spectrum of emotions, from ecstatic to inconsolable.

So the article in the NY Times last week by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen headlined "The Problem with Positive Thinking," grabbed my interest. Over two decades, the writer conducted scads of studies showing that focusing on happy outcomes doesn't help them happen. She instead advocates "mental contrasting," by which individuals employ her "WOOP" technique to transform a Wish to a concrete Outcome, consider Obstacles in the way, and Plan means to overcome them.

Basically, she came up with a structure, a crutch, for deciding what to pursue, and to find the best way to achieve it. Very nice.

I haven't yet read Dr. Oettingen's new book, "Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation," so I'm really just going on what she wrote in her Times article and website, but it seems that she's confirmed the obvious: the more you do to make your desires practical and attainable, the more likely you are to actually attain them. (And the reverse--the more you realize what's unattainable, the more you'll eschew it.)

Does this negate the usefulness of Positive Thinking? Only if you define it as wishful dreaming, not as, well, confidence in a worked-out plan. Also, you've got to look at the goal--WOOP can help people reach tangible or measurable benchmarks. But it may be less helpful toward a goal of increasing well-being and becoming a happier person. Or enjoying life.

As an example, I'm going to present the case of someone I know; someone who was my close friend in high school. I was often frustrated when around her, and finally realized it was because of a personality trait I called "contrary-ness." Jen was not just a pessimist, but one who contradicted anyone else's optimism. If I said something upbeat, she'd tell me why I was wrong--subtly and cleverly. For Jen, in every silver lining, she'd see a cloud. It took me a long time to understand why, after a few hours with her, I always felt deflated, but with analysis that uncannily portended my future profession, I dissected our interchanges.

"What a gorgeous, sunshine-y day!" I'd exclaim upon emerging from class with Jen.
"The forecast is for rain tomorrow," she'd respond.

"You look great in that color," I'd chirp.
"Good, because when I weighed myself this morning, I'd gained five pounds."

"You got 98 on that test, and I only got 90," I'd remark.
"I should have gotten 100," she'd retort.

Some people don't even realize they're contrary. They're just raised to think that way. Or maybe it's their innate temperament, instilled genetically. I'll not forget the studies by Thomas, Chess and Birch on babies' innate temperaments, something researchers have now found are stable through childhood.

I'm not sure how Jen became contrary, but given who she was, how might she employ WOOT to overcome it?

Wish: "I wish I were happier."
Outcome desired: "For things to go my way." (Jen thought circumstances conspired against her.)
What are the obstacles to that? Given the examples above, Jen would say that the obstacles to what she preferred (rain, weighing less and perfect test score) were an unpredictable climate, a bad metabolism, and an overly-demanding teacher.
Jen's Plan: Stay inside, reading. Diet constantly. Complain to the teacher.

Do these three actions enhance Jen's goal of feeling happier?  YES. They increase her sense of control. Feeling in control improves her mood.

But is triumphing over the teacher, eschewing the outdoors and losing weight through dieting anything more than momentary success? Is a feeling of power in a situation happiness?

No, because there's a bigger obstacle to happiness for Jen and the many people I've observed who are generally negative: They want it that way. Remember, Jen is a contrarian.

Contrarians are most comfortable when they can be victims. Their underlying belief system dictates that they're NOT in control; that nefarious or just unfortunate circumstances are their lot in life, and that their lousy lot is what they deserve.

Now we come to the reason Dr. Spencer Johnson has earned millions of dollars and sold 26 million copies of "Who Moved My Cheese." This is a slim volume that tells the parable of two mice and two people in a maze, and the contrast between the Jen-types who remain stuck in the same place, and the natural WOOT-er, the "glass is half-full" personality who embraces what comes his way. The moral is to anticipate change and think about it positively. You've got to be the one who goes after new cheese, makes lemonade from lemons, or keeps digging to find the pony in the room full of poop.

Among personalities, there's a continuum of course, but with a bi-modal distribution. On the attitudinal graph of life, there are two bell curves, one hill for the positive thinkers, and another for the negatives. I hope you enjoy my hand-drawn representation, above.

When I was in graduate school at UCLA, a Public Health professor named Linda Beckman (who was on my doctoral dissertation committee) did a study comparing the happiness levels of older women who had no children with those who were mothers. I've been quoting this study for decades because it illustrates how crucial a positive attitude is in evaluating one's entire lifetime. The women surveyed all experienced adulthood before the women's movement, when motherhood largely defined women's identities. You'd think that parenthood or lack of children would determine those women's happiness with their lives, but another factor was much more important: attitude.

The women who had a positive attitude spoke glowingly about their children, or, if infertile, about the many opportunities they enjoyed and their fulfilling relationships with others' children. The contrarians blamed their children for their troubled lives, or, if infertile, blamed their lack of children for their unhappiness. Viewing the world through rose-colored glasses lets everything come up roses.

Positive thinking and Dr. Oettingen's WOOP process needn't be mutually exclusive, despite the title of her article. There's no "problem with positive thinking" unless the positive thinking has no basis. If seated in rationality and reality, positive thinking shapes your wishes, outcomes and plans to be bigger and better. With positive thinking, the obstacles may be there, but they become more surmountable.  Positive thinkers are the mice who move and adapt when the cheese moves, because they don't put their own obstacles in their paths and they're looking forward rather than backward.

Fantasizing on happy outcomes alone, as Dr. Oettingen asserts, won't motivate. As she notes, "positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we've already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it." But combined with WOOP-like analysis, positive thinking is motivating.

 I submit that two people with the same goals, same obstacles and same plans to overcome them are likely to have different outcomes if one's a contrarian or pessimist, and the other a confident optimist. Even if they seem to achieve the same thing on paper, one will end up happier about both the accomplishment and the process achieving it.

But there's another aspect to positive thinking that Dr. Oettingen seems to miss. And that is the moment. If you're an upbeat person, the moment is more often a pleasure, because you're seeing the good in it, the upside. Enjoying the present has its own worth. Maybe savoring the omelet you've made, talking on the phone to a loved one, or reminiscing over a photo album don't help you accomplish a specific goal or wish, but they can still enhance the quality of life, and weave positive feelings into the daily fabric. WOOP is helpful for accomplishing goals, I'm sure, but must every behavior advance a goal? Can an unplanned pleasure be productive?

Positive thinking as the overlay on life makes the classically productive parts--setting objectives, analyzing obstacles, making and executing a plan toward goals--as well as the less-defined parts pleasurable. Happiness, I maintain, is far broader than concrete achievements, and relates more to over-arching attitude than to the goal-driven motivational structure of "mental contrasting" that seems to fuel Dr. Oettingen's definition of success.


  1. Very interesting, Diane! Just yesterday I attended a small group with the purpose of each one attaining a goal specific to them. We began by repeating to ourselves how "awesome" we were and then asked to write our preferred "goals" as if we'd already achieved them. One has to believe in the process and take it seriously. But I find that visualization of the outcome and thinking positively along the way is the key. When I have doubts before I begin any journey and allow them to take over, I am not successful. I agree with your views here. You can wish...If you only wish ( and maybe envy others) you will never be successful. Wishing is okay as long as you also think positively and take the steps to reach your goal. (Do you remember the old Dusty Springfield song???? ;)

  2. Talby, Dusty Springfield was "wishin; and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin'" to no avail until she actually expressed her feelings to "hold 'im, and squeeze 'im, and love 'im, and tell 'im that you caaaaare!" Not to mention "doin' the things he likes to do; wear your hair just for him..." which means subjugating your personal inclinations to please the one you love. A recipe for a happy marriage and good relationships. But the point of the song is that action is essential to success. As Jews, we don't judge others on intentions, only behavior. Thanks for your thoughts!