Do you have some dreams for next year? What is it in you that might hold you back from realizing them? Are you simply not thinking positively enough?
Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, has done extensive research on the power—and impotence—of positive thinking. Her findings in Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation (Current/Penguin, 2014) undercut the view that positive thinking can transform dreams into reality. Instead, “the obstacles that we think most impede us from realizing our deepest wishes can actually hasten their fulfillment.” (p. 8)
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Positive thinking can sometimes be perilous, especially when it comes in the form of collective positive thinking. The author analyzed articles in the financial pages of USA Today dating from the beginnings of the financial crisis during 2007-2009. Using a computer program that extracted all words that dealt with the future or that carried a positive valence as well as all words that were negative or dealt with the past, they created a “future positive” index. They then used this index to explore whether positive thinking in the media correlated with movements in the Dow. Contrarians won’t be surprised to learn that they “found a clear correlation: the more positive newspaper reporting was in a given week, the more the Dow declined in the week and month that followed.” A similar finding: “the more positive the inaugural address for a given presidential term, the lower the GDP and the higher the unemployment rates were in the following presidential term.” (p. 25)
Returning to individual self-sabotaging, Oettingen found that dreaming, or positive fantasizing about something, relaxes us. It even lowers our blood pressure. That’s a problem. “In dreaming it, you undercut the energy you need to do it. You put yourself in a temporary state of bliss, calmness—and lethargy.” (p. 44)
So how do you actually accomplish your dream? First, it is important that your dream is feasible. Dreaming that next year you’ll turn a $10,000 portfolio into a $1 million portfolio is not feasible, so you should just let that dream go and move on to something more realistic.
Oettingen introduces a tool with the acronym WOOP to move people from dream to accomplishment. The “W” stands for a wish or concern you might have, “something that is challenging but that you think is possible for you to achieve in a given period of time.” (p. 104) The first “O” is the outcome: “What is the best thing that you associate with fulfilling your wish or solving your concern?” Moving beyond the standard recommendations of positive thinking, the author introduces the second “O,” the obstacle. “Find the most critical, internal obstacle that prevents you from fulfilling your wish or solving your concern.” (p. 105) Finally, the “P” represents the plan. “What can you do to overcome or circumvent your obstacle? Name one thought or action you can take—the most effective one—and hold it in your mind. Then think about when and where the obstacle will next occur. Form an if-then plan: ‘If obstacle x occurs (when and where), then I will perform behavior y.’ Repeat this if-then plan to yourself one more time.” (p. 106)
“And that’s it. You’re done.”
Before I say I’m done, here’s an amusing anecdote about dreams that aren’t feasible from Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. In her seventies, thin and frail, she was told to gain weight and devote a minimum of three hours a week to physical therapy. She writes:
“I find, … somewhat to my surprise, that I actively like physical therapy. I keep regular appointments at a Columbia Presbyterian sports medicine facility at Sixtieth and Madison. I am impressed by the strength and general tone of the other patients who turn up during the same hour. I study their balance, their proficiency with the various devices recommended by the therapist. The more I watch, the more encouraged I am: this stuff really works, I tell myself. The thought makes me cheerful, optimistic. I wonder how many appointments it will take to reach the apparently effortless control already achieved by my fellow patients. Only during my third week of physical therapy do I learn that these particular fellow patients are in fact the New York Yankees, loosening up between game days.” (p. 78)