If you have ever had access to social media, then you have probably heard of it. It’s gone by different names… the law of attraction, determinism, psycho-cybernetics, but the idea remains the same: positive thinking equals positive results. Although this sounds like an elegant way to view our lives and the universe, for many of us, these ideologies reek of something… somewhere between being too good to be true and outright deception. Despite hundreds of self help books published on the power of belief and the magic that it can offer if we would only commit ourselves more fully to an idealized reality, the evidence they provide remains purely anecdotal, showering us with story after story of millionaires attributing their success to the fact that they always felt they would be rich anyway.
While bombarding us with cherry picked success stories in order to sell something is by no means a newly created marketing strategy, the fact remains that no actual scientific studies have been carried on the topic. However, one researcher, Gabriele Oettingen, has dared to actually test the koolaid (so to speak), conducting research on how our thoughts of the future impact our levels of success. Published in her book, Rethinking Positive Thinking, Oettingen shares the results of her studies, finding that although positive thinking does allow us hope, which can ease the difficulty of present situations, it takes away motivational energy, tricking our minds into believing we have already succeeded.
Oettingen’s research serves as a reminder of something we were taught from a young age: if you want to achieve something, then you have to take steps to work for it. The law of attraction and overly positive thinking, as charming and utopic as they make themselves out to be, disconnects oneself from a balanced perception of reality, effectively blinding them. Taking the proper steps to achieve a goal is slightly complicated when you cannot even admit to yourself that steps need to be taken, let alone see the necessary steps that are vital to achieving the goal.
The importance of contrast
The ability to contrast the future with the present is an extremely important skill. It provides us insight into where we truly stand in our lives, and what we need to be doing to improve our situations. By injecting as much positivity as possible while lying to oneself that negativity does not exist will allow some “happiness” (much in the way anesthetics do), it is essentially sticking one’s head in the sand emotionally.
Proponents of the power of belief will argue that the universe will magically present more opportunities, citing extremely tenuous connections to quantum physics experiments. While we will have to wait until quantum technology is at the level where we can prove exactly how much (or how little) of an impact consciousness really does have on matter and reality, it is worth noting in the mean time that these theories simply do not address the fact that they leave people much more unprepared for the obstacles in life that will happen.
While believing that the obstacle will be easily overcome at the time (as the law of attraction suggests) will probably provide you with some temporary comfort, the fact remains that you did not foresee and are not prepared for the challenge that lies in front of you, things that are much more likely to happen with a balanced, realistic appraisal of the future. For the degree that these beliefs attempt to associate themselves with Eastern religions, it is a little peculiar that they completely reject one of Buddhism and Hinduism’s most fundamental principles of balance.
Oettingen’s research suggests that people who subscribed to the power of belief had a more difficult time seeing how many steps there really were in their goals as well, increasing their likelihood of feeling overwhelmed and quitting (in other words, they were more blind to reality). Oettingen provides more than just scientific research on the subject, but offers self-help methods of her own to increase motivation and working towards new goals. Keeping in line with other self help books, her plan, WOOP, is presented in acronym form as well, standing for wish, outcome, obstacle and plan. The concept behind WOOP is to provide a set of steps that will allow people to realistically envision a desired future, and plan for it in ways that are not simply effective, but will increase their motivation along the way.
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Chase Beckwith is a writer with Sovereign Health Group whose lifelong goal is to make reading about addiction and mental health palatable.