I confess I’ve never read the bestselling book, The Secret. But its basic premise goes something like this: Visualize what you want in life and really believe it will happen, and you will attract it to you. Whether it’s wealth, health, or better relationships you want, the “power of positive thinking” is all that it takes to make it manifest.

But, according to Gabriele Oettingen, a motivation researcher at New York University and author of the new book, Rethinking Positive Thinking - it's not just about happy thoughts—but actually planning for and anticipating those positive outcomes.

A combination of dreaming and anticipating challenges you'll face — “mental contrasting”— is important for motivation.

Oettingen distinguishes between optimism— positive expectations about the future based on past experiences—and relying on just positive thinking or wishful dreaming.

A combination of dreaming and anticipating challenges you'll face — which Oettingen calls “mental contrasting”— is important for motivation, setting in motion unconscious cognitive processes that are important in goal attainment.

It’s also important for goals to have context. In one study, Oettingen and her colleagues asked computer science students to rate how likely it would be for them to get better at math, and to list four potential positive outcomes and four potential negative obstacles to achieving this goal.

Dividing the students into three groups, the researchers asked students to either indulge in fantasies based on their positive outcomes, dwell on their negative obstacles, or engage in mental contrasting. Results showed that those students who thought they could improve in math and who used mental contrasting tried harder and achieved more according to independent teacher reports than those who indulged in positive fantasies or dwelled on negative obstacles.

Combining her ideas with those of fellow researcher, Peter Gollwitzer, she writes of a motivation exercise called WOOP, which marries mental contrasting skills with action plans for goal attainment, and gives tips on how to use it.

Under the WOOP model, you work on goal attainment by:

Wishing for something you’d like to achieve; Imagining a good Outcome; Examining the Obstacles that might get in your way; and Coming up with a Plan for overcoming those obstacles.


Oettingen and her colleagues have developed a WOOP mobile phone app that has been used with kids in low-income neighborhoods to help encourage them to aspire to college, as well as an app that adults can use in their personal and professional lives. Research results have shown that employing WOOP is more successful than positive thinking alone in helping people to fulfill their desired goals.

But is positive thinking completely useless? Certainly not, writes Oettingen. Daydreaming about the possibilities of your future can be helpful, particularly when you are in a situation that is inescapable or when you need to wait out a decision over which you have no control. It can also be a pathway to exploring your deepest desires — especially when they are not obvious to you.

With a little mental contrasting, planning, and determination, your dreams may just come true.

The Hidden Difference Between Optimism and Positive Thinking originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

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