Review: Rethinking Positive Thinking

Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation by Gabriele Oettingen

I don’t know how many times I have listened to people in support groups declare that they have decided to apply positive thinking to their lives and then watched them crash and burn. People declare all kinds of objectives for their affirmations. They will lose weight. They will master their drug problem. They will control their anger. They will grow rich. Money will come to them without effort. They will find a millionaire and marry him. They will find a fabulous new job and leave all the cares of the old one behind them. Some goals are realistic. Others are simply fantastic.

Studies show that plain old positive thinking drags people into a depressive rut. Oettingen cites the example of her work examining the attitudes of East Germans versus West Germans. East Germans spend a lot of time thinking positively. They see themselves as rich, as coming into opportunities of a lifetime which change their life situation for the better. But they still end up at bars trying to drink their melancholy away, and they never get anywhere with these plans. West Germans set reasonable objectives, put in the work, and succeed. Even though their goals are less grandiose, they are happier than their former Communist counterparts.

Does positive thinking help us succeed at tasks? In another study, Oettingen looked at students preparing for an exam in two weeks time. She noted that there were students who prepped themselves by reciting affirmations like “I am going to ace this exam”. And there were students who were in a panic, who told themselves that they were woefully unprepared and stood to fail. Positive thinkers hold that the first group would do better, but Oettigen found that the latter group got better grades. Why? Because they knew that they would have to get their act together and study if they wanted to get the A. (In my own life, I did my best in the classes where I told myself that everyone was smarter than I was so I had to go into overtime just to keep up.)

What does she suggest we do instead of positive thinking? Enter WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. First, you clear your mind and examine what you want. Lose weight! You take a few moments to realize how great this will be when it manifests itself in your life. I can fit into my old clothes again! I will make new friends. I will feel better and bring my diabetes under control. Then you consider what might prevent you from succeeding. Carb cravings! Finally you decide what you are going to do when that obstacle rises up to stop you. I’m going to throw out all the junk food and eat some celery instead.

It is important that you write your WOOP down. Then every morning and any time you run into one of your obstacles, review it. People who do this find that they can achieve aims that have eluded them for years.

Let me shamelessly use my fellow blogger, Quinn, as an example of how WOOP can work. S/he (I’m not giving away any details of her/his identity) wants to get an A in a class. This would be great because it would bring her/him one step closer to her/his goal of going to medical school and that opens up a whole life of possibilities, not the least of which is doing something s/he loves. S/he explores this potential outcome and then considers obstacles. Quinn might have a problem with being distracted by the computer. Valuable study time is lost when s/he does this. So the next step is to ask what can s/he do when the temptation appears? Quinn can decide to gather up her/his books and go into another room or go down to the library where the distraction doesn’t exist. If the problem is her/his cell phone, s/he can turn it off so that s/he can’t see the texts. Every morning Quinn reviews her/his WOOP so that it is in place for the day. Then when s/he finds her/himself at at the computer — uh oh — s/he remembers her/his WOOP, takes it out, and carries out the plan.

Our definition of our wish can sometimes lead to failure. Let’s say that I have a drinking problem. (For the record, I don’t.) It screws up my life in many ways. For one thing, I don’t treat my wife very well when I am drunk. But I do the WOOP and somehow it isn’t working. What can I do? Maybe stopping drinking isn’t the goal that I want. Maybe I need to set a better relationship with my wife as the wish to fulfill. I think about how wonderful this will be — we’ll have better conversations, we’ll enjoy our vacations more, etc. Then I lay out the big obstacle: my drinking. What do I do when I want a drink? This is where you can get creative. Maybe you will have a glass of water instead or go for a run or call an AA buddy. Realizing your real wish can get you through a problem which has defeated you up to now.

Sometimes when we do our WOOP identification process goals change. We develop the wish, consider how great the outcome is, and then we. get. to. the. obstacle. I might want to go back to school to become a cardiologist. Oh think of the people who I will help! But wait, there’s a big obstacle here: I am 57 years old. First, I will have to go back and take all those undergraduate courses that I didn’t take when I was in college 40 years ago. Then I have to get in a medical school. (Who will accept me at my age?) Then there’s the internship and the residency. Again my age is going to be a factor, except I can add “Just how old am I going to be when I finally get to practice?!” “How long will I get to practice?” Here the obstacles are just too big for me to surmount. So what do I do? I drop the wish and do something else that is achievable for me. Even when WOOP has led me to this blind alley, it has saved me from the discouragement of an impossible wish that will ultimately hurt my mood more than help it.

WOOP is available as an app which is simple to use. The funny thing about WOOP is that when you use it to fix one thing, other things fall into place on their own. I might lose weight and I might also stop drinking even though I didn’t WOOP it. My overall mood improves. WOOP can be used to reduce stress in our lives, change habits, and even help alleviate the symptoms of a depression.

Rethinking Positive Thinking has excited me more than any self-help book in years. I hope that it spawns a whole new generation of books that replace the magical thinking that has wrecked so many of us over the years and help us to carry out and finish the changes we have craved.

More information about WOOP.