Rethinking Positive Thinking
Inside the New Science of Motivation
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“The solution isn’t to do away with dreaming and positive thinking. Rather, it’s making
the most of our fantasies by brushing them up against the very thing most of us are taught
to ignore or diminish: the obstacles that stand in our way.”
So often in our day-to-day lives we’re inundated with advice to “think positively.” From
pop music to political speeches to commercials, the general message is the same: look
on the bright side, be optimistic in the face of adversity, and focus on your dreams. And
whether we’re trying to motivate ourselves to lose weight, snag a promotion at work, or
run a marathon, we’re told time and time again that focusing on fulfilling our wishes will
make them come true.
Gabriele Oettingen draws on more than twenty years of research in the science of human
motivation to reveal why the conventional wisdom falls short. The obstacles that we think
prevent us from realizing our deepest wishes can actually lead to their fulfillment. Starry-
eyed dreaming isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and as it turns out, dreamers are not often
While optimism can help us alleviate immediate suffering and persevere in challenging
times, merely dreaming about the future actually makes people more frustrated and
unhappy over the long term and less likely to achieve their goals. In fact, the pleasure we
gain from positive fantasies allows us to fulfill our wishes virtually, sapping our energy
to perform the hard work of meeting challenges and achieving goals in real life.
Based on her groundbreaking research and large-scale scientific studies, Oettingen
introduces a new way to visualize the future called “mental contrasting.” It combines
focusing on our dreams with visualizing the obstacles that stand in our way. By
experiencing our dreams in our minds and facing reality we can address our fears, make
concrete plans, and gain energy to take action.
In Rethinking Positive Thinking, Oettingen applies mental contrasting to three key
areas of personal change— becoming healthier, nurturing personal and professional
relationships, and performing better at work. She introduces readers to the key phases
of mental contrasting using a proven four-step process called WOOP—Wish, Outcome,
Obstacle, Plan—and offers advice and exercises on how to best apply this method to
daily life. Through mental contrasting, people in Oettingen’s studies have become
significantly more motivated to quit smoking, lose weight, get better grades, sustain
fulfilling relationships, and negotiate more effectively in business situations.
Whether you are unhappy and struggling with serious problems or you just want to
improve, discover, and explore new opportunities, this book will deepen your ideas about
human motivation and help you boldly chart a new path ahead.