That's not to suggest positive thinking is a waste of time. If you literally expected to fail every time you started a venture, chances are that you would. Mental attitudes can have an enormous effect on psychology and even physiology. There are many from the world of business who would emphasize how important positive thinking can be.
But, according to Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, "positive thinking often hinders us" because of an inherent flaw in the approach. The good news is it doesn't have to if you take a specific corrective step.
First, the problem. As Oettingen and her colleagues learned, positive thinking about future outcomes can, perversely, make the goals harder to achieve. For example, more than 20 years ago, she helped run a study in which women were in a weight loss program. One group of women were told to imagine that they had succeed and lost weight--just the type of positive thinking that we're all often told to employ. The other group was to imagine situations in which they cheated on their diets.
A year later, the women who tried to be more positive lost less weight than the ones who tried to imagine problems.
Oettingen and her colleagues have done many follow-up studies looking at other types of goal setting, whether getting dates, looking for jobs, getting good grades, or becoming mobile again after hip surgery. Different studies looked at adults and at children in both the U.S. and Germany. Each time, "[f]antasizing about happy outcomes--about smoothly attaining your wishes--didn't help." It actually hurt.
Although positive thinking did make people calmer, it drained away the drive to actually succeed. By focusing on positive thoughts, people literally tricked their minds into thinking they had already succeeded and, so, who needed actual efforts to get something already acquired?
Completely dumping positive thinking isn't a solution. With purely negative thought, people convinced themselves that they had already lost the goal so, again, there was no need to make the efforts necessary to achieve it.
What Oettingen suggests instead is a technique called "mental contrasting." First spend a few minutes thinking of a goal and imagining that you are achieving it and then switch over to thinking about the obstacles that will get in your way. "When participants have performed mental contrasting with reasonable, potentially attainable wishes, they have come away more energized and achieved better results compared with participants who either positively fantasized or dwelt on the obstacles," she writes.