How "Positive" Thinking Sets You Up To Fail

I wish I could make the universe deliver wonderful things to my doorstep just by imagining them. I can't—and neither can you, no matter what anyone tells you. There is not a single piece of hard evidence that "visualizing success," and doing nothing else, will do a damn thing for you.

In fact, there is plenty of evidence that it will leave you even worse off than when you started. Scientifically-speaking, focusing all of your thoughts on an ideal future reliably leads to lower achievement. In other words, you are less likely to achieve your goals when all you do is imagine that you already have achieved them.

"Negative" thinking, on the other hand, has gotten a bad rap. This is mostly because the people who advocate "positive" thinking lump all the "negative" thoughts together in one big unpleasant pile, not realizing that some kinds of negative thoughts are actually necessary and motivating. There is a big difference between "I am a loser and can't do this" (a bad, self-defeating negative thought), and "This won't be easy, and I'm going to have to work hard" (a very good negative thought that actually predicts greater success).

In fact, study after study shows that people who think not only about their dreams, but about the obstacles that lie in the way of realizing their dreams—who visualize the steps they will take to make success happen, rather than just the success itself—vastly outperform those who sit back and wait for the universe to reward them for all their positive thinking. Whether it's starting a relationship with your secret crush, landing a job, recovering from major surgery, or losing weight, research shows that if you don't keep it real you're going to be really screwed.

A new set of studies by NYU psychologists Heather Barry Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen offers insight into why this kind of thinking isn't just useless, but actually sets you up for failure. These researchers found that people who imagined an uncertain and challenging future reported feeling significantly more energized, and accomplished much more, than those who idealized their future. The purely "positive" thinkers' lower energy levels even showed up in objective, physiological measurements. (Ironically, these studies showed that the more important it was to the participant that the dream come true, the more idealizing sapped their motivation!)

Kappes and Oettingen argue that when we focus solely on imagining the future of our dreams, our minds enjoy and indulge in those images as if they are real. They might be reachable, realistic dreams or impossible, unrealistic ones, but none of that matters because we don't bother to think about the odds of getting there or the hurdles that will have to be overcome. We're too busy enjoying the fantasy.

Admittedly, there are some people that might experience a benefit from visualizing a positive future or a vision board. People who are depressed, or have very low self-confidence, are more likely to think about obstacles, and only obstacles. They may need to be reminded that a positive future is possible, and a vision board when used hand-in-hand with some realistic thinking and planning, can be an effective tool.

Believe me when I tell you that I truly wish the Law of Attraction would work. I also happen to wish that Hogwarts was a real place, and that Antonio Banderas was my next-door neighbor. But wishing will not make it so, and that's exactly my point.

To learn more about proven strategies for reaching goals (ones that actually work), check out Heidi's new book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. Follow her on Twitter @hghalvorson. Her website is www.heidigranthalvorson.com.

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5 Comments

  • John Bradberry

    Heidi, thanks for a well articulated perspective, one that I think is on target, especially in the realm of entrepreneurship. Aspiring founders too often become emotionally attached to their visions and, in the name of entrepreneurial passion, dismiss consideration of challenges and risks as overly negative and unnecessary. The polarized debate (at times) between "positive" and more realistic mindsets presents a false dichotomy. Entrepreneurs who want to elevate their odds of success can do so by envisioning the positive destination AND considering potential obstacles and pitfalls in a clear-eyed way. 

    Look forward to reading your book! JB    

  • Tom Schulte

    Wonderful article, Heidi!

    As a creative ideation guy, I often struggle with getting my head out of the clouds to get my feet on the ground. Your article is a great reminder to focus on the steps it takes to create success rather than just imagine it. I am working on some large projects and getting them into the next steps is critical right now. 

    I will be checking out your book.

    Thanks, again!

    Tom Schulte
    Executive Director | Linked 2 Leadership

  • John Bradberry

    Thanks for the well articulated perspective. This applies in spades to aspiring entrepreneurs, whose emotional attachment to a vision can limit their odds of success. Moderately optimistic venture founders have been shown to be more successful than extreme optimists ( http://bit.ly/oZsV6F ). 

    As you imply, "negative" vs. "positive" thinking represents a false choice. Founding teams that passionately envision their desired destination AND exhibit clear-eyed realism about the challenges and risks ahead will enjoy greater odds of success.  

    I look forward to reading your book!  

  • petehayes

    Great reminder. I don't know a successful mid-sized company CEO who is disproportionately positive. They're encouraging, but soberingly realistic.  However, positive attitude is an excellent way to set the right trajectory, but as you point out without focusing on the obstacles, you'll never get there. The title would be more accurate by putting the "thinking" in quotes. But I guess that would have led to another discussion. It's the first time I've seen anyone say positive thinking can be detrimental. Good reminder for entreprenuers and Gen Y in particular.

  • John Bradberry

    Thanks, Heidi. So true. Your perspective applies in spades for aspiring entrepreneurs, whose emotional attachment to a vision can actually limit their effectiveness in launching a business. From a personality standpoint, research also shows that moderate optimists outperform extreme optimists in new venture settings ( http://bit.ly/gOQG1O ). I see the phenomenon quite a bit in working with new founders. 

    As you suggest, choosing between vision and reality is a false choice. Both are necessary and, when skillfully brought together, create the healthy tension that provides energy to drive the venture forward, and, just as importantly, in the right direction.

    I look forward to reading your book!