Entrepreneurs are inveterate optimists. You pretty much have to be to risk your livelihood on an idea that may make sense to you and you alone.
But staying positive might actually be bad for you. That's at least according to Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg. Writing in Aeon and reflecting on 20 years spent researching positive thinking, Oettingen concludes positive thinking can be counterproductive.
In the short term, she says, it may make you feel better. In the long term, it leads to inaction and underperformance. "The more that people 'think positive' and imagine themselves achieving their goals," writes Oettingen, "the less they actually achieve."
Oettingen and her colleagues studied people in a range of different countries, with a range of personal health, academic, professional, and relationship goals.
The basic outlines of the studies were mostly the same. In one study, researchers asked college students with a crush on someone to visualize how they would react if that person showed up at a party. Some spun complex romantic fantasies in which they suddenly made a connection with their crush; others visualized a friend or rival ending up impressing their crush.
After five months, the researchers checked back in to see if the students had taken any action to start a relationship with their crush. Students who had drummed up a positive fantasy about themselves and their crush were less likely to have done anything to actually start a relationship. As Oettingen explains these results, and other similar ones: "We achieve our goals virtually and thus feel less need to take action in the real world."
Not surprisingly, this leads to subpar performance, and is also linked to depression, says Oettingen. There's even more bad news: People who think more positively while they're depressed feel better in the short run, but worse in the long run. It's enough to make even Mary Poppins feel kind of grouchy.
How to make positive thinking work.
In an attempt to come up with something that could help people live happier lives, Oettingen and her colleagues asked people to think positively about a challenge, then focus on the largest blocks preventing them from overcoming the challenge, and to write down their thoughts. She reports that two weeks later, those people who had thought about the obstacles, as well the potential for a positive outcome, had done more to attain their goals than people who didn't also consider the obstacles.
Oettingen and her colleagues went on to come up with a formulation called WOOP--that's wish, outcome, obstacle, plan--to help put these findings into practice. If you know you're going to be faced with a difficult situation, she recommends coming up with a simple sentence based on a four-step process:
Wish: Visualize what you want to happen
Outcome: Visualize the implications of the "wish" coming true
Obstacle: Figure out what's preventing it from coming true
Plan: Figure out what you will do next time you're faced with the obstacle
So the resulting affirmation could be, "Next time I get nervous presenting to investors, I will remind myself of our stellar second-quarter sales figures," or "Next time I am offered dessert after 8 p.m., I will eat a piece of fruit instead."
Ottingen says this has been shown to work for people who are depressed and for people who are trying to lose weight, among others.
I've tried using it myself to kick the 3 p.m. sugar habit, and it's working pretty well. I'm no longer grumpy and wondering what to eat at that time. Now my decision is to eat fruit and yogurt at 3 p.m, so I make sure it's waiting for me in the office fridge.
I did what Oettingen said: I thought ahead about what my challenge was likely to be, and came up with a simple plan to overcome it before it actually hits. Even without the accompanying affirmation, that seems like a good strategy for business and life.