We're always told by other people to think positive. The key to success is to believe, because once you do, you can achieve your goals. Anything is possible when you rely on the power of positive thinking.
But experience shows that that's not necessarily the case. A few friends I knew wanted to partner up and start an advertising business. People supported their idea and doled out encouraging advice.
In usual fashion, the partners reveled in the high of embarking on a new venture. They talked excitedly about the possibilities their new business would bring. Together, they spent evenings discussing how to set up the business.
First, they set up a corporation and decided on a tax structure. Then, they looked up a few potential customers and brainstormed what kind of help they could offer. Business was going to be big.
Then something happened. Gradually, their interest waned and they eventually stopped having meetings. To this day, the business has no sales and has lain dormant since.
If there was anything these friends had, it was enthusiasm. They were positive that their business would thrive. But optimism wasn't enough to help them.
What's more, positivity could even be a hindrance to success.
Why fantasizing impedes achievement
So what exactly goes on our heads as we sit at our desks and picture ourselves lying on a warm, sunny beach? According to Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor who researches positive thinking, our blood pressure drops when we think happy thoughts. In turn, our energy levels go down.
When people have less energy, it becomes harder to summon up the motivation to go after what they want. The drop in energy is similar to performing other relaxing activities, such as meditating or lying on your bed.
But let's face it: Fantasizing is fun. When you delegate your ambitions to the mind, you can achieve whatever you want. You imagine finally getting something you've wanted for a long time or picturing your life in a scenario vastly different from reality.
Yet, that's also what makes fantasizing so dangerous. When you daydream, your brain feels like it's accomplished what you're imagining. In other words, the fantasy substitutes reality because you get that euphoric feeling in both scenarios.
It's clear why we like to dream about better things. It's within our control, it's easy to do, and it's a shortcut to where we want to be. Too much of it though, and we can end up paying in the long run.
A study on college students navigating work and romance
Oettingen interviewed college students to see how positive thinking impacted various aspects of their life. In a study, the students were divided into two groups. The first group was told to imagine that the next week would turn out great. The second group simply had to write down any thoughts they had about the upcoming week.
The first group, full of positive thoughts, immediately reported that they felt less energy compared to the second group. In the week after, they also accomplished less than the second group.
One week is a relatively short period of time in our lives. So what happens if we fantasize over a longer period of time, say two years?
Oettingen asked 83 students in their last year of graduate studies to evaluate their likelihood of getting a job, whether they thought positive or negative thoughts, and how often they had these thoughts.
Two years later, Oettingen interviewed the students again and found that participants who experienced positive fantasies did not try as hard as students who had some negative thoughts about life after college. As a result, the students who fantasized received fewer job offers and lower salaries overall.
However, the students who had high expectations of success performed the best, with more job offers and higher salaries. Of course, it's possible they were also the highest achievers and best candidates of the group as well.
When it came to college students' romantic lives, the results were similar. The students who fantasized a lot about the person they were interested in were much less likely to start a relationship. The students that expected success, though, were more likely to start a relationship with the person.
The experiences of these college students show that positivity isn't necessarily bad. But when it's used for daydreaming rather than action, it becomes an issue. There's a difference between expecting to succeed and pretending you've already done so.
Practice positivity the right way
There are multiple ways to go around being positive. One involves imagining great things happening on their own, while the other type is about creating high expectations of ourselves. As the study shows, the latter is better.
Of course, positive thinking on its own isn't enough to steer us in the right direction. In order to achieve our goals, we need to combine high expectations with planning, deliberate effort, and a willingness to stay flexible.