Why Positive Thinking Needs Obstacles to Work

I vividly remember a youth hockey coach once asked me to do some positive thinking before a big game, “Imagine that there are no obstacles standing in your way. You are fast and powerful and nothing is between you and the net.”

Even with my eyes closed in the locker room, I could practically hear my skates cutting the ice, feel the thrill of speed and the sweet taste of victory as I landed the puck in the net. It was exhilarating to even imagine this outcome – especially since I so rarely scored a goal in real life.

I remember loving this pre-game exercise. But how do we know if it helped me and my teammates perform on the ice?

According to the latest research it may have been better if a good defender had showed up in my imagination to try to take away the puck.

Like many athletes and students alike, I grew up in a culture saturated with messages about positive thinking. Posters with “Believe it! Achieve it!” or “Reach for the Stars” plastered the walls of my elementary school. It certainly seems reasonable that encouraging young people to dream would excite them, motivate them, and propel them towards a more positive future. This line of thinking didn’t come out of nowhere; decades of psychological research document the impact that optimism can have on outcomes.

Children running through obstacles on ground.

The role of obstacles in positive thinking

It turns out that conventional wisdom – that fantasizing about success makes us successful – is not born out by the research. It isn’t that dreaming is bad. Among other benefits, dreaming helps us mentally explore diverse futures, generate ideas and goals, and is an important tool for enduring hardship.

Dreams alone, however, don’t provide the motivation necessary to manifest them. The latest evidence demonstrates that blind optimism can rob us of the fuel we need to take steps towards that magnificent end goal. There are at least three reasons for this:

  1. Pie in the sky thinking feels great in the short term. So great that we become too relaxed and less poised to take action. We actually need a bit of stress to get us going.
  2. Pie in the sky thinking doesn’t feel so good over the long term. If we indulge in fantasies that aren’t grounded in reality we experience greater distress and dissatisfaction over time when we don’t realize them. This further eats away at our motivation and leads to a “why bother?” attitude.
  3. Our brains are living the dream. Fantasizing about the future can trick our brain into thinking that we have already accomplished our goals and thus we lose energy to actually do anything about it.

Researcher and author Gabrielle Oettingen describes twenty years of research in her book ­­ Rethinking Positive Thinking. The big lesson? Focusing on our obstacles is just as important as indulging our dreams. She insists that she isn’t against dreaming, but how we dream matters.

Does your child have a dream? Try WOOP to get there

­­­­Oettingen proposes trying WOOP instead of simply encouraging kids to follow their dreams.

  • Wish
  • Outcome
  • Obstacles
  • Plan

This method combines something called “mental contrasting” with “implementation intention.” Mental contrasting consists of alternating between focusing on our dreams and visualizing obstacles that might get in the way of achieving them. Implementation intentions are “if-then” plans that identify when and how you will overcome those obstacles.

The author agrees that this exercise seems intuitive, but that very few people actually practice this kind of thinking. We tend to vacillate between indulging (how amazing and perfect will my life be when I graduate from high school!) and dwelling (everything about High School is awful and I am never going to graduate anyway).

WOOP harnesses both of these impulses and directs them towards a more productive present and future. In other words, it links our dreams to reality, making it far more likely that we actually realize them.

Putting positive thinking to work

So how do you help young people “do” WOOP? Find a distraction free quiet space. Give young people permission to free write or free think about the following things in the following order:

  • Wish: Start by focusing on something that you believe is achievable. This could be as big as, “I want to graduate from high school” to “I want to get to my first class on time.”
  • Outcome: What is the best thing that you associate with fulfilling your wish? How would it feel? Imagine enjoying this outcome as vividly as possible.
  • Obstacle: What is it in you that might hold you back from this? Find the most critical internal obstacle that prevents you from fulfilling your wish.
  • Plan: Name one thought or action you can take in response to the obstacle and hold it in your mind. Think about when and where the obstacle will next occur. Form an “if-then plan.” Repeat this in your mind.

For all of you parents and teachers reading this post, it may be a bit unrealistic to think that your teen will turn to you and enthusiastically say, “Yes! I look forward to starting my day with a quiet WOOP exercise that will help me succeed!”

Don’t let this stop you from sharing this strategy with young people. This promises to be a useful intervention for anyone working with kids. For example, a group of researchers recently wanted to know whether they could help low-income fifth graders ground euphoric messages in reality and in turn propel them towards greater academic success. After asking students to generate a school-related wish, they found that fifth grade students taught both mental contrasting and implementation intentions (WOOP) improved their GPA, attendance, and behavior relative to students randomly assigned to merely think positively about their academic dreams.

Unjust obstacles and dismantling barriers to hope

Importantly, WOOP only works well when students pursue dreams that they value and that they believe are feasible. Forcing a student to do this exercise about something they care little about is futile. Similarly, asking a student to dream of success in an area where they have consistently met disappointment, prejudice, or failure is unfair. In contrast to the “pie in the sky” thinking that WOOP is designed to mediate, too many children have compromised expectations for themselves in response to a lifetime of obstacles. As scholar Melanie Walker writes, “We adapt our hopes to our probabilities.”

This means we should match our focus on the internal capabilities of a child with greater commitment to dismantling external barriers to success (including poverty, systemic racism, and damaging stereotypes, among others). While mental contrasting hold great promise when it comes to impacting outcomes, we need to pay close attention to disparities within “feasible dreams.”

If we are going to ask children to close their eyes and imagine a positive future, let’s ensure that all youth have equal opportunity to get there.