When you are lacking motivation and feel like you are ready to give up, do you try to banish those negative thoughts from your head? Do you try to keep a positive mindset and keep going?

This optimism has long been thought to help give people that much-needed boost to reach your goals.

After all, you should always look on the bright side right?

Hmm..maybe not.

Recent studies have actually shown to contradict this belief. Some have concluded that positive thinking and optimism may actually be detrimental to your ability to reach your goals, whether it is advancing your career, hitting those personal bests in the gym, or any other objective that you may have.

Sound crazy? Hear me out.

The Downside to Positive Thinking

Positive thinking is great because it results in fantasies that you have achieved what you have always wanted.

The downside is that it can reduce your commitment to meet these goals because, in your head, you have already reached it.

This means that you are unlikely to visualise the potential obstacles and hardships that you may have to overcome to get there, and this can make you less likely to take action.

Gabriele Oettingen is a psychology professor at New York University and the University of Hamburg. She has spent over 20 years contesting this conventional belief, resulting in her book, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.

Oettingen stated to Entrepreneur, “My research has confirmed that merely thinking and dreaming about the future makes people less likely to achieve their goals. 

“In our minds, we’ve already reached a desired future but there is a long way to go. [When people] pretend they are there, they will not prepare themselves for the obstacles and won’t get motivated to make the difficult climb.”

Oettingen is not the only one who claims this. Julie Norem, Ph.D., is the author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. Also a psychologist and professor at Wellesley College, she echoes this sentiment. She believes that positive thinking can actually hinder your ability to take action and achieve success.

“Focusing only on the positive side leads to processing that can gloss over important details. If you concentrate only on a specific outcome, say getting hired for a job, you’re not thinking about how to get there.”

Without thinking about the potential hurdles, you are not preparing yourself to tackle them.

So it is great to be positive but it takes away from that sense of realism that you need to take action.

Proven Studies

Of course, you cannot state a claim without having the studies to back it up as evidence.

There have been multiple studies that contribute to this discussion and actually support Oettingen’s hypothesis.

One such study that she conducted consisted of 164 female college students. Before the experiment, their systolic blood pressure was read. They were then instructed to daydream about wearing stylish high heels; half the group was asked to think about positive thoughts while the others were to focus on the negative. Afterwards, their blood pressure was measured once again.

Systolic blood pressure is used to measure how motivated a person is. The group that had positive thoughts had lower systolic blood pressure while the negative group showed no changes.

This study illustrated that positive thinking can make us feel very relaxed and calm. While this is great when we want to feel this way, it does little to help stimulate us to take action and proceed with gaining progress towards our goals.

We don’t want to feel relaxed and calm when we think about our ambitions; we want to be energised, pumped up, and ready to tackle what lays ahead.

But if positive fantasies don’t help us, then what does?

The Positive Side of Negative Thinking

Not only can thinking positively hinder your ability to get results but negative thinking can actually improve your progress.

A bit of a contradiction right?

In other words, the positive side of negative thinking is that it can strengthen your focus and effort.

For example, by thinking about all the problems, hurdles, and barriers that can potentially get in your way, you start to apply other areas of thinking.

This may not always be all gloom and doom but in fact critical thinking and problem-solving.

By engaging these core areas of the brain, you are doing more than just daydreaming, you are actually applying the effort and steps you need to make progress.

Your critical thinking kicks in when you begin to brainstorm solutions, and you use reasoning to determine whether or not it is viable and worth applying.

Take it from Bob Knight. Not only is he a basketball coach but he is also the author of The Power of Negative Thinking. He highlights the importance of being able to address any weaknesses that we may have that could act as a drawback.

Rather than view them as something to avoid, he welcomes it.

“Insecurity can have intangible benefits. Reviewing your mistakes is what makes you better.

“Being able to self-analyse and be self-critical is very important. Realising your shortcomings takes awareness.

“Negative thinking can bring about better results when you recognise and then admit the fact that something isn’t working.”

Finding a Balance Between the Two

But the point of this article isn’t to turn you into a Debbie Downer and start shunning all positive encouragement. It is to enlighten you to the positive side of negative thinking and how it can actually benefit you in the long run.

Each has their own benefits so the best solution is to combine the two.

Oettingen has penned a method to reach your goals that finds the balance between positive and negative thinking.

She calls it, “mental contrasting”.

She describes it as an approach that allows us to “dream our dreams, but then visualise the personal barriers that prevent us from achieving them.” Subsequently, this helps to generate the energy and determination we need to actually take the necessary steps to achieve it. “By adding a bit of realism to people’s positive imaginings of the future, mental contrasting enables them to become dreamers and doers.”

Once such mental contrasting tool that Oettingen has created is WOOP – Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. The method works like so:

    1. Name a realistic wish or goal that you would like to achieve. This could be getting more traffic to your website or hitting a new personal best in the gym.
    2. Imagine how it will feel once you have achieved that goal. Give yourself a few moments to bask in all that glory and happiness.
    3. Now, think about the main obstacle that stands in your way.
    4. Make your plan in response to the obstacle in the previous step. How will you overcome? What steps need to be taken?

WOOP is an effective method. It seamlessly combines both the positive (steps 1 and 2) and the negative (steps 3 and 4) into one approach. It allows you to dream your dreams while still creating a plan of action to make those dreams a reality.

Negative thinking hence has become not an obstacle to success but in fact a necessity to it, and there actually is a positive side of negative thinking.

The important point to remember is that a fusion of positive and negative thinking is critical as it combines the pleasure of our daydreams with a realistic frame in which we can motivate ourselves to reach our goals.

What are your thoughts on negative thinking? Do you believe that there is a positive side of negative thinking? Have you tried mental contrasting before? Has it made a difference to your progress? Leave me a comment below, I would love to know your thoughts!

I originally wrote this post here after being inspired by this article but have revisited it to make it longer, more detailed, and better!

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I am a copywriter, creative writer, blogger, and SEO specialist, here to help you grow your business, one word at a time.

  • I would agree with you that positivity is overrated. That said, I find that a state of calm (and being at least somewhat relaxed) is important for thinking clearly and being able to solve problems.

    • Being calm certainly helps to clear your mind so that you can make rational decisions, I certainly agree with that.

  • Hi Emily. I appreciate your arguments, but unfortunately, I cannot support them. I am a positive thinker, and thank God for the ability to look on the bright of any situation. That attitude has gotten me through many tough times, and has enabled me to counsel friends who are are negative thinkers or may be going thru tough times and cannot see any hope in their situation.

    • I do believe positive thinking is still important however as long as there is a balance between of positivity and realisim, as RoseMary pointed out. I am glad that looking on the bright side has helped you throughout your life! The world can do with more positivity I think! Thanks so much for your input Doreen 🙂

  • Hm, I’m a very positive person who thinks critically, but I don’t view that as being negative in any way. Which may, of course, be because I am such an optimist. I’ve always said that I am a realistic optimist. So the glass is always half-full, but I recognize that I can drain it empty.

    When it comes to certain pending hurdles, finding an agent, getting my mystery bought, selling copies of the book…I try not to envision them. Yet. Because they can become overwhelming. Instead, I research what I can, as I need to know it. Again, realistic, not pessimistic.

    Thought provoking post–and early in my morning!

    • I like your way of looking at things. Realistic optimism is something that is so important and can help you reach attainable goals while still giving you the chance to dream your dreams! Thank you for reading and for your comment.

  • Catarina

    Despite being positive you always have to be prepared for the nightmare scenario. If not, you will be caught off guard.