The Counter-Intuitive Truth Behind Positive Thinking
Back in 1991, women in a weight loss program were asked, before the program began, how well they thought they’d do. Shockingly, the ones who were pessimistic about losing weight, who thought the process would be difficult and that they might not succeed, ended up losing an average of 10 kilos more than the positive thinkers.
Everywhere you look, people are urging you to think positive, be optimistic and think about your goals as if you’re definitely going to achieve them.
Here’s a surprising scientific finding...
Thinking positively on its own is terrible advice.
Optimism can be the thing holding you back and a little bit of pessimism can be a big help in your goal achievement.
The weight loss study came from Gabriele Oettingen, a german psychologist specialising in optimism. She spent the next 20 years studying people working towards goals and found that:
Students who imagined getting better grades improved less over their course.
The more people imagined starting a relationship, the less they actually began one.
The more people just envisioned healthy eating, the less well they ate.
The findings that positive fantasies didn’t help people achieve their goals and, in fact, often get in the way, led her to develop WOOP.
WOOP is an evidence-based strategy to set and fulfil your goals, increase your motivation and change your habits.
You start with positive thinking.
WISH - Name a wish and ensure it is challenging, but also realistic.
OUTCOME - Identify the best possible outcome of fulfilling this wish and how that would make you feel. Let your mind go and think, imagine and savour it.
Then you switch gears.
OBSTACLE - Identify the main obstacles within yourself, such emotions or habits that stand in the way of you fulfilling your wish. Do not shy away from them, rather envision them as fully as you would your most favourable outcomes.
PLAN - Create a specific plan for overcoming each obstacle that stands in your way of success. When you make this plan, try to be as specific, realistic and practical as possible.
Then set some implementation intentions. If (your obstacle happens) then I will (action to overcome obstacle).
Why a Little Pessimism Leads to
When you indulge about starry-eyed dreaming about the future, you start ignoring the tasks in front of you. Instead of pushing yourself to go to the gym or study for a test, you just happily imagine having big muscles or getting good grades and don’t feel much motivation to do anything. It’s too easy to trick your brain into thinking you’ve already achieved your goals before you’ve even started which saps your energy levels.
WOOP works through a visualisation technique called mental contrasting. By first fantasising about your wish and then coming back to reality, it grounds you in the present and the realities of your current situation, energising you to take action towards that wish.
WOOP in Action
Here’s an example of how you can use this in your own life. Let’s say you want to start an exercise routine and eat healthier so you feel and look better.
WISH: Go to the gym three times a week without having to struggle and choose healthier options for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
OUTCOME: I’ll feel confident in my body and have pride in my appearance. I’ll be doing the things I know I should be doing to live a long and happy life so there will be no negative thoughts. With my increased energy and vitality, I’ll be more present at work and with my family, being a role model for the kids. (this part also takes some imagination as you let your feelings and emotions embody your wish coming true).
OBSTACLE: I always choose the easier option. It’s easier to sleep in than get up and go to the gym, or easier to say I just don’t have the time even though I know I could get to the gym if I prioritised it. It’s like I’m hiding behind excuses. I also have some habits I’ll need to change, such as always having a glass (or bottle) of wine with dinner every night.
PLAN: I will make an effort to prioritise the gym, scheduling it in ahead of time and taking away as many excuses as possible. I’ll try and only have healthy food in the house and stick to healthy options when I buy my lunch.
If I say I don’t have time, then I will just do a 10-minute workout. Everything counts.
If I want a glass of wine with dinner, then I will just have one glass and then not drink any wine tomorrow night.
The amount of if-then’s here are endless.
WOOP Helps You to Be Healthier
There’s plenty of research showing the efficacy of WOOP in helping you reach your health goals.
People doubled their physical activity and had a better diet.
Pain patients become more physically active in their everyday lives
People were able to fight unhealthy snacking behaviour.
Depressed patients became more active and found it easier to pursue their goals
Stroke patients engaged in more physical activity and lost more weight.
But it can also work with things like:
Improving anger management
Increasing work engagement
Improving time management
Sustaining healthier relationships
Give WOOP-ing a Go
It’s time to move beyond only positive thinking. It’s great for some things, but for achieving your dreams it isn’t enough. We desire challenges, opportunities and action plans, things that really motivate us to go for it.
*In research, WOOP is usually examined under the scientific term Mental
Contrasting with Implementation Intentions, abbreviated MCII
Adriaanse, M. A., Oettingen, G., Gollwitzer, P. M., Hennes, E. P., De Ridder, D. T. D., & De Wit, J. B. F. (2010). When planning is not enough: Fighting unhealthy snacking habits by mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII). European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(7), 1277-1293. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.730
Christiansen, S., Oettingen, G., Dahme, B., & Klinger, R. (2010). A short goal-pursuit intervention to improve physical capacity: a randomized clinical trial in chronic back pain patients. Pain, 149(3):444-52. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pain.2009.12.015.
Fritzsche, A., Schlier, B., Oettingen, G., & Lincoln, T. M. (2016). Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions Increases Goal-Attainment in Individuals with Mild to Moderate Depression. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 40, 557–564. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10608-015-9749-6
Kappes, H. B., & Oettingen, G. (2011). Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(4), 719-729.
Marquardt, M. K., Oettingen, G., Gollwitzer, P. M., Sheeran, P., & Liepert, J. (2017). Mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII) improves physical activity and weight loss among stroke survivors over one year. Rehabilitation Psychology, 62(4), 580-590. https://doi.org/10.1037/rep0000104.
Oettingen, G., & Reininger, K. M. (2016). The power of prospection: Mental contrasting and behavior change. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 10(11), 591-604. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12271
Schweiger, G., Bieleke, A., Gollwitzer. P. M., & Oettingen, G. (2018). Downregulation of Anger by Mental Contrasting With Implementation Intentions (MCII). Frontiers in Psychology, 9(1838). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01838
Stadler, G., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer P. M. (2009). Physical activity in women: effects of a self-regulation intervention. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 36(1), 29-34. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2008.09.021.