Monday, July 27, 2015

Rethinking Positive Thinking: It can hinder more than it helps by zapping people's motivation to work toward their goals.

The following is a much needed correction to the modern obsession with positive thinking, for those who live their lives by the "Secret" or Oprah Winfrey, or simply can't get enough inspirational drashos by famous rabbis and rebbetzins. The antidote is "mental contrasting" which is described by psychology Prof. Gabriele Oettigen,  It is adding an awareness of reality. Positive thinking - without reality - tends to be satisfying to the degree it saps motivation to actually bring about change. This is a significant issue in the frum community - where bitachon is often the term use for positive thinking without concern for reality. Interestingly enough - the Ramban and others state that bitrachon can be a hindrance and that people like Yaakov Avinu did not use it. It is basicallly expecting to get something you don't deserve - simply because you trust G-d to give it to you.
The Atlantic  It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when positive thinking became the star of the self-help industry. The idea of optimism is older than America itself (some accounts date it back to ancient Greece), and positive psychology has been validating its benefits since long before Oprah and Deepak Chopra.

Today, the power of optimism is trumpeted from the shelves of bookstores, the walls of yoga studios, and the podiums of leadership conferences. Countless studies in recent years have charted the benefits of optimism, including reduced risk of heart disease and stroke, better immunity, and improved job performance.

But if positive thinking is such a game-changer, why do people often have such a hard time quitting smoking, losing weight, finding a new job, or maintaining a regular gym routine? If positive thoughts somehow birth great outcomes, why do we often struggle to reach personal and professional goals? While being upbeat and optimistic clearly isn’t the worst thing we can do for ourselves, it seems like it’s not exactly spurring behavior change, either.

Dr. Gabriele Oettigen, a New York University psychology professor and researcher, has been studying the effects and realities of positive thinking for over 20 years. In her new book, Rethinking Positive Thinking, she points out that while optimism is a critical component of conceiving goals, it can also be crippling when it comes to actually working toward them. In fact, a cheery disposition and good attitude can zap the motivation needed to mobilize and strategize, leaving us with lofty ideas that never reach fruition. In other words, dreaming isn’t doing.

I spoke with Oettigen about what could be more a practical and effective approach: a concept she has christened “mental contrasting.” In her book, she argues that while optimism alone isn’t enough, positive thinking coupled with an understanding of the obstacles that stand in our way is the key to achieving significant behavior change.

Magdalena Puniewska: Your book centers on the idea that in order to successfully achieve our goals, we need to add a dash of realism to our positivity. Could you explain how that works?

Gabriele Oettigen: We all have goals, big and small, personal and professional. We may fantasize about what it would be like to achieve them—for example, how nice it would be to have that corner office or to be 10 pounds lighter. But after this bout of dreaming, what we should also do is perform a procedure called mental contrasting—that is, examine the barriers that stand in the way of us actually attaining that goal. Visualizing the desired future and then imagining the obstacles can actually help us be more successful than positive thinking alone. [,,,]

NY Times    Dare to Dream of Falling Short 

Ever hear the joke about the guy who dreams of winning the lottery? After years of desperate fantasizing, he cries out for God’s help. Down from heaven comes God’s advice: “Would you buy a ticket already?!”

Clearly, this starry-eyed dreamer is, like so many of us, a believer in old-fashioned positive thinking: Find your dream, wish for it, and success will be yours.

Not quite, according to Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor at New York University and the University of Hamburg, who uses this joke to illustrate the limitations of the power of positive thinking. In her smart, lucid book, “Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation,” Dr. Oettingen critically re-examines positive thinking and give readers a more nuanced — and useful — understanding of motivation based on solid empirical evidence.

Conventional wisdom has it that dreams are supposed to excite us and inspire us to act. Putting this to the test, Dr. Oettingen recruits a group of undergraduate college students and randomly assigns them to two groups. She instructs the first group to fantasize that the coming week will be a knockout: good grades, great parties and the like; students in the second group are asked to record all their thoughts and daydreams about the coming week, good and bad.

Strikingly, the students who were told to think positively felt far less energized and accomplished than those who were instructed to have a neutral fantasy. Blind optimism, it turns out, does not motivate people; instead, as Dr. Oettingen shows in a series of clever experiments, it creates a sense of relaxation complacency. It is as if in dreaming or fantasizing about something we want, our minds are tricked into believing we have attained the desired goal. [...]


  1. I would agree with the above. If Ramban mentions this, how does R' Dessler's system fit into the picture, ie is eh in agreement or not with Ramban?

  2. I disagree.
    Bitachon is the antithesis of Positive thinking. In Positive thinking the individual decides what's best for him, and then, Wills himself to think and believe that it will happen. He wishes that the best according to him will happen, and has a problem with the fruits of his labor because it may not be as rewarding to him as his positive thoughts.
    Bitachon on the other hand is the exact opposite. With bitachon the individual understands and believes that what he thinks is best for him may, according to G-d, be dermental to him and his wellbeing. Thus, in bitachon he believes that G-d knows what's best for him, and what He believes is best will occur.
    The only thing they both have in common is that in both cases, the person doesn't worry much about the future. Either because he believes G-d will take care of him, or because he dreams it.

  3. @Yitzchokm - you are ignoring the many statement in our literature which disagree. Rav Yisroel Salanters famous statement that bitachon will get you what you want even if it is luxuries. That are clearly views such as the Chazon Ish and Reb Moshe who agree with you - but that is not the predominate understanding of bitachon today

  4. Thanks for the response.


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