We all know positivity doesn’t actually work.
Sure, there are some smart positivity techniques that can have a good effect.
But have you noticed that when you force yourself to think positive all the time, you actually end up just as anxious as you were before?
I used to be religious about positivity. I wanted happiness so damn badly. I would force myself to think positively every single minute of the day, regardless of what was going on. It didn’t work. I still had anxiety. I still felt stressed.
Bombarding your mind with fantasies is never going to work. It’s like staring at the sun. It will only make you blind.
Good news is this: there is a better method of positive thinking, a method that actually works.
Scientists are excited by emerging research into “mental contrasting”.
Mental contrasting is an alternative to positive thinking. In this technique we simply balance out our ideas of the future with acknowledgement of the present moment.
If we fear something happening in the future we thinking about the present reality and the things that are preventing the bad event from happening.
If we want something good to happen in the future, we visualize the good thing happen but also acknowledge the obstacles in the way of our success.
So it’s about balance. It’s seeing the potential good or bad of the future, and balancing it out with the reality of the present moment.
This sounds simple. But it’s huge.
A staggering amount of evidence shows that this visualization technique actually does work.
So is it actually true?
Is this the answer for people with anxiety?
Does mental contrasting stop stress? Does mental contrasting create happiness?
I went hands-on with this new technique to see whether it actually did anything. And I was surprised by my results.
In a moment I’ll show you how mental contrasting works, and how you can use it in your own life.
But first, let’s burst the bubble on the old fashioned style of positive thinking.
Why positive thinking doesn’t work and actually harms us
For years, positivity was practically my religion.
I used to train my mind to always think positive and never think negative. I would wake up every day and meditate on positivity. I would force myself to think of a magical future ahead of me. You know, dreaming of the billions that the universe had in store for me. Oh, the places I would go… … erm…
It worked in a sense.
When I thought positively I was happy. Hell, life was all rainbows and unicorns. At least, life was great in my mind.
But my reality was different.
When I thought positively I actually did less. Why? Because I was so happy in my mind that I didn’t actually need to do anything.
Being too positive actually rendered me useless.
Actually, it makes sense.
Science has explained why such forced-positive thinking does not work.
In an article for New York Times, Gabriele Oettingen wrote:
“Positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we’ve already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it.”
Here are some examples of ways this will ruin you:
- Positive thinking in weight loss will stop you from actually working out because you already feel as though you have the perfect body
- Positive thinking about your career will make you work less hard because you already feel as though you’ve got your dream job
- Positive thinking about your exams will make you feel like you’ve already got that top grade, so you will be less motivated to revise and will end up failing your exams.
Forcing yourself to think positively can also increase anxiety, because it makes us feel increasingly at odds with reality. When we try to force a positive situation we turn a blind eye to the more “negative” , challenging areas of life. And when we turn a blind eye to those things we make it impossible to change them. You can’t remove a thorn if you cannot see it.
I used to dream of being a famous actor. Oh, I was Marlon Brando Two-Point-‘O. And because of that I refused to do the crappy acting jobs that were too lame for someone as famous as me! Oh, how the egg is squarely on my face! If only I had said, “I’m not a big shot right now” I would have worked my way up the ranks. Then I might have actually been successful. Woe is me.
Forced positive thinking does not work.
For real success we need a balance of positivity and realism.
Mental contrasting offers a more balanced approach to positive thinking
Positive thinking essentially does not work for a few reasons:
- When we think positive the mind thinks we have already achieved our goal
- Too much positive thinking will make our goal look easier than it is
- When we force ourselves to think positively we refuse to see the more “negative” or more challenging aspects of reality, and so we do nothing to change those things.
Mental contrasting balances things out.
Mental contrasting offers a more effective way of positive thinking
Mental contrasting is a technique in which we contrast positive thoughts about the future with acknowledgment of the obstacles in our way. And vice-versa, we can balance out anxieties about the future by thinking about the positives preventing those negative situations from happening.
Gabriele Oettingen of New York University recently published research into this techniques. She tells THE DAILY MEDITATION:
“When you mentally contrast the thoughts and fantasies about a desired future with the main inner obstacle of reality standing in the way, [you]l find clarity about what you want and can achieve, and you invest the effort to fulfill your wishes and attain your goals.”
Oettingen researched the effects of mental contrasting on fears and anxieties.
The research shows that when we can reduce anxiety in this way: When we think negatively about the future we think about the present reality and everything that is standing in the way of that future coming true.
For instance, if you are worried you will become unhealthy, consider the present reality: you are healthy now, you exercise, you eat healthy, you make healthy choices etc. This contrast puts things back in perspective.
Research shows mental contrasting promotes success and reduces anxiety
Frontiers In Psychology recently published research into the effects of mental contrasting.
Here’s how the study worked:
405 participants were used
They were asked to do one of the following:
Think about an e-Coli outbreak
Think about e-Coli outbreak and also think about the present realities that were preventing that outbreak from happening
This test showed that results showed that people who used the mental contrasting technique has significantly lower levesl of anxiety.
After this, participants were asked to think about an actual event that would soon happen in their lives, an event they felt negatively about.
Half the group were asked to also think about the present reality that prevented that negative situation from happening.
The group that used mental contrasting once again had much lower levels of anxiety.
Oettingen states that mental contrasting in this way can both help us to be successful and can also stop anxiety.
HOW TO DO MENTAL CONTRASTING
We can use mental contrasting to stop anxiety and to increase our chances of success.
Let’s take a look at how to do both of these things.
How to create success using mental contrasting
- Visualize a wish coming true, or a goal being met. Imagine that your ideal reality is coming true right now.
- Imagine all the good things that would come from this wish coming true, and how you would feel.
- Identify the obstacles and problems that could prevent you from being successful. These could be inner or outer obstacles. E.g.: You want to lose weight but you lack motivation. Acknowledge it. Or you want to lose weight but you can’t afford the gym. Again, acknowledge it.
- Make a specific plan to overcome the negatives that are stopping you from being successful.
How to stop anxiety using mental contrasting
- Visualize something bad happening. Imagine that your fear has become a reality.
- Imagine the negatives that would come from that. (Stop if you feel too much anxiety or fear)
- Think about all the present positives that are stopping the negative situation from happening.
- Make a specific plan to make use of the present positives to stop the thing you are anxious about.
Learn more about Mental Contrasting
Want to learn more about mental contrasting? I recommend reading Rethinking Positive Thinking by study lead Gabrielle Oettingen.
In Rethinking Positive Thinking, Oettingen reveals the secret science of why positive thinking typically does not work. And she offers valuable insight into how mental contrasting can unlock our true potential.
My personal experience
In my personal experience, too much positive thinking can definitely be a negative.
When we force ourselves to think positively we delude ourselves into believing that we already are successful. Ironically, that stops us from actually working towards our goals. And at the same time, when we force positivity we refuse to look at the reality of a situation. Such blind-sightedness never works.
Have you tried mental contrasting? How did you get on?
Leave a comment below.