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Ways to block bad thoughts!

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It’s the new-age mantra touted to help you achieve a more fulfilling life -positive thinking. However, while many of us indulge in happy thoughts and dreams about the future, those who actually end up living that life are a minority.

The problem, says Dr Gabriele Oettingen, lies in how we approach positive thinking. The New York University psychology professor and researcher who has authored the recent title, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, says, “You need to understand how you use it, so that you are able to use it better in your daily life.”

Why fantasy derails

Engaging with the future, via positive thinking, says Oettingen, can be done either through expectation or fantasies.

Those who have expectations from the future form a judgement about how likely it is that the desired results will show through, based on past experiences. “For instance,” she says in a telephonic interview to Mirror, “if it is someone’s wish to, say, get good grades and they have got good grades in the past, expect that they will fulfil their wish and will find it worthwhile to invest in their academics.” Fantasies and day dreams, which she classifies as “mere thoughts and images of a better future”, however, derail a person trying to reach their goal because they are independent of our abilities.

As part of an experiment, Oettingen and her team studied university graduates looking for a job.They measured students’ fantasies about their dream jobs as well as their expectations of attaining such a job.”The higher the students’ expectations were, the more they earned two year later. Interestingly, though, the more positive students’ fantasies were the fewer applications they sent out and, two years later, they also earned fewer dollars” she says.

This happened, she explains, because those who fantasised about their success were already enjoying the pleasures of the success. So, they didn’t feel motivated enough to do the cumbersome things that were needed to achieve those results. The fantasies also had a physiological effect. Those in the fantasy group reported lower blood pressure and appeared more relaxed -markers linked to lesser effort.

Do a mental contrast

If you have a New Year’s resolution that you are hoping to stick to or achieve Oettingen suggests you chart out the obstacles you will face when trying to achieve your goal.

Isn’t that counterproductive? She disagrees.

“Think of someone whose goal is to quit smoking. They have thought about how good they will feel when they quit. However, they meet a friend who offers them a cigarette and, without thinking, they grab it,” she says. Listing the obstacles you are likely to face -in this case, being around smokers -will give you the energy and motivation to reach your goal. “Those who haven’t considered these obstacles have only a little chance of success.”

She has designed what she calls the WOOP strategy to get you to your goal.W = What is the goal that you’d like to achieve? O = What would be the best Outcome once you achieve the goal? O = What are the Obstacles you forsee in your attempt to achieve this goal? P = What Plan do you have to overcome these obstacles? Giving an example of how to use WOOP, Oettingen says, “Imagine that your problem is an interpersonal conflict with your flatmate. Your objective is to resolve it. That would make living conditions peaceful.

“However, you shy away from confrontation and rather not bring it up. You then chart out a plan that pre-empts this situation and a way to circumvent it. For instance, you ask your flatmate out for coffee and talk about the situation in a neutral area where you’ll feel comfortable.”

Start with positivity

Is positive thinking overrated? “Not at all,” says Oettingen. “We found that those who engaged only with the negative did not move towards their goal either. Start by imagining the positive future and then switch gears and ask, `what holds me back?’ Identify the obstacles and make the effort needed to achieve that goal.”

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