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Why Do We Think We Need To Be Happy All The Damn Time?

Or think positive?  Or vision, exactly, our successes?

a goal without a plan is just a wish

Isn’t this just mood making?

Gabriele Oettingen, Professor of Psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, focuses her research on how people think about the future, and how this impacts cognition, emotion, and behavior.  Her book, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, debunks a lot of the common wisdom about being happy and positive and daydreaming about goals.

While acknowledging that optimism can help to alleviate suffering, and can help us to persevere in challenging times, just dreaming about the future in reality makes people more frustrated and unhappy over the long term.  What’s more stark is that these folks are less likely to achieve their goals.

Say what?  Doesn’t this fly in the face of all we’ve been told the last few decades?

Oettingen’s studies have proven that the pleasure gained from positive fantasies allows for virtual wish fulfillment, which actually saps our energy to perform the hard task of facing and working through challenges, which is what causes us to achieve real-life goals.

In other words, that vision board ain’t gonna get you anywhere without well-planned-out action steps toward it.

And some of that includes acknowledging disappointments and failures as you act, work, and master the skills to get you there.

Oettingen’s research is not only groundbreaking, but she draws on her large-scale scientific studies as well, and introduces “mental contrasting”—which combines our dreams and the obstacles within us that keep us from achieving our goals.  Not the obstacles outside of ourselves, but those that are strictly under our own control—and that we can change.

In other words, take a real-life assessment of what’s standing in your way, and make a plan to fix it.

Or, not.  Oettingen sees no shame in taking off the rose-colored glasses, assessing whether you can reach your goal, and if not, letting it go.  Which frees up all that energy to then focus on an attainable goal—and one that might be a much better fit with you and your life.

This mental contrasting, as she calls it, just takes an unfettered view of the goal and the obstacles so that you can then make a wise decision about whether to continue, or to abort and dream a new dream.

She calls her action method WOOP—Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan.

First you define your wish, what you want to achieve, etc.  Then, you visualize the outcome—how it would make you feel, what the effects on your life would be.  What is the obstacle within you that keeps you from achieving this?  Is it surmountable?  If so, you formulate a plan to do so—working on that thing that you can improve about you.

Although this isn’t so entirely different from positive thinking, from being happy all the time, what it does do is to take off those rose-colored glasses and get real about what you want and if you can achieve it.

Oettingen showed that the people in her studies, using this mental-contrasting tool, have become significantly more motivated to quit smoking, lose weight, get better grades, formulate fulfilling relationships, and negotiate more effectively in the workplace.

In short, dream your dreams then plan and work like hell to attain them. 

Didn’t we always know this would work?  🙂

All emotions have their places in our lives.  To deny the negative ones just stuffs them down.  Being honest with oneself is always the best policy.

But that doesn’t mean to quit being happy or positive either.

As Oettingen says, after all of this research proved her theories:

“The solution isn’t to do away with dreaming and positive thinking. Rather, it’s making the most of our fantasies by brushing them up against the very thing most of us are taught to ignore or diminish: the obstacles that stand in our way.”

How do you achieve your dreams?


This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Yaya

    I love this statement “In other words, that vision board ain’t gonna get you anywhere without well-planned-out action steps toward it.”

    It’s so very true. Without having a plan or dreams, we’ll never accomplish the goals we set. I’m a planner by nature, so I am definitely trying to set things in place so that I can accomplish my goals.

    1. Susan Malone

      You already have it down, Yaya! I bet you do accomplish your goals 🙂

  2. Beverley Golden

    One of my big challenges spending so much time in the online world, is seeing how “fake” positivity is rampant and that it seems no-one wants to face the fact that life is about polarities. We as humans are meant to experience both the light and the dark and the ups and the downs. One without the other is skewed too far in one direction. Being able to acknowledge this and come face-to-face with ourselves, is one of the big life lessons being human offers. To imagine and wish and do nothing, is being delusional. Obstacles are part of life and as Gabriele Oettingen shares, learning to see them as part of our life, is healthy. Thanks for this great post, Susan Mary. Definitely information more people would be wise to consider!

    1. Susan Malone

      Love that, Beverley. And so very true: “We as humans are meant to experience both the light and the dark.” It’s in the shadow side where the richness lives, and our job is to excavate that and draw from the energy. Love your thoughts!

  3. Teresa

    I think we need to be happy but I also think its okay to be upset sometimes emotions in life keep us grounded!

    1. Susan Malone

      Absolutely, Teresa. Owning all of our feelings keeps us real, and growing. And, as you say, grounded too!

  4. Brittany Bly

    lol. I couldn’t be happy all the time if I tried! To me the important thing is listening to myself and keeping in rhythm with the world around me. I look forward to the range of human emotions and experiences.

    1. Susan Malone

      And that’s just it in a nutshell, no? To listen to yourself, to keep in the rhythm of the world around you. Beautifully stated, Brittany!

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