Can Positive Thinking Make You Less Motivated?

Positive Thinking Is Not What It Seems

I’ve discussed the idea of clarity and how it helps you achieve your goals in a couple of previous videos. I’ve included links to them below if you want to check them out. In those videos, I discuss the idea that not only do you need to have clear goals, but you need to have clarity on the daily actions it will take to get you there, and a way to track your progress, so you don’t get demoralized by not knowing whether the work you’re doing is making a difference.

Today I’m going to talk about a different aspect of achievement; positive thinking, and how it is not what it seems.

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Positive thinking applies to the topic of goal setting, but it’s broader than that and applies to any situation where you haven’t set a formal goal, but just wish you could accomplish something.

You’ve probably heard about visualization exercises, and how important it is to have a crystal-clear image of what it is you want to accomplish or have in your life. In addition to that guidance, much of the success and self-help “wisdom” on the market today also tells you to vividly imagine what it will be like to accomplish your goal or dream; to soak it up with all of your senses and every fiber of your being, and to use positive thinking to reinforce your commitment to the things that you desire.

That ethos is the basic tenet of one of the most popular self-help movements of the last twenty years: "the law of attraction”. It is most typically associated with the book (and movie) The Secret, but it’s touted by a legion of self-help “gurus”. The basic idea is, if you consistently think about the things you want to have and send that energy out into the universe, those things will manifest in your life over time. Unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence to support this assertion. There is, however, scientific evidence that indicates fantasizing about having things you want in your life actually makes you less likely to work toward them.

The counterintuitive effect of positive thinking

Professors Heather Barry Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen conducted an experiment that was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. In one part of their experiment, they had college students visualize their upcoming week, including the work they had to complete and any tests they were going to take.

The participants were divided into two groups. The control group was asked to visualize their upcoming week and to write a detailed description of how they expected the week to go, with no further instructions. The test group was also instructed to visualize and then describe their upcoming week, but this group was told to expect that they would have the best possible outcome in all areas.

One week later, the participants returned and completed a survey. In addition to recording their actual accomplishments, the survey also collected data on their energy level and motivation throughout the week. Specifically, they evaluated things like their overall feeling of achievement, how in control they felt, and their ability to effectively manage their time. The results revealed that the positive thinking group had less “energization". Energization is a term used to describe the body’s physiological response to prepare for some type of activity. More importantly, they found that the fantasizing group achieved less during the week than the control group.

In another part of the experiment, Kappes and Oettingen showed that people who fantasized about the outcome of an essay contest performed worse than those who were primed to visualize an uncertain and challenging outcome.

Why does it happen?

The reason visualizing the future with a rosy outlook causes low energy and motivation is because it causes your brain to experience the feeling of success before you put in the work to accomplish that success. Your subconscious mind interprets the situation as resolved, so your autonomic nervous system puts your body in relaxation mode, to bask in the glory of your achievement, rather than marshaling the resources necessary to actually make it happen. Essentially, it puts the cart before the horse. It’s worth noting that this low-energy, low-motivation effect is more pronounced the more strongly you want the outcome you’re visualizing.

So here’s the key takeaway. When you want to accomplish something, you absolutely should visualize your goal in vivid detail. However, when doing so, it’s very important that you think of it in terms of the work you will have to do, and paint a realistic picture of things that could go wrong. Otherwise, if you just fantasize about how great it will be to have that new job, that new car, or that new degree, you may be setting yourself up to fail before you even start.

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