Popular psychology and the self-movement encourage people to engage in positive thinking. Some therapy manuals even use this as a coping strategy but, can thinking positive actually be detrimental to success and mood? New research published in the journal Psychological Science suggests so.
In a series of studies, New York University Professor Gabriele Oettingen found that, although positive fantasies predict fewer symptoms of depression in the moment, they actually make individuals more susceptible to depression in the future. For example, in one of the studies following 78 college students, the more positively participants fantasized over a period of 4 days, the more symptoms of depression they showed 6 months later. Another study following 148 students found the same pattern. In that study, participants who reported many positive fantasies were less likely to study and were less successful in school. This, in turn, raised their symptoms of depression. The study authors state that because fantasizing makes the future seem like it is happening right now, “positive future fantasies impede the hard work necessary to reach success.” They discuss their results in terms of prior research suggesting that “indulging in positive future fantasies has predicted low effort and little success in various life domains, such as academic achievement, interpersonal relations, and health.” The researchers end by recommending that individuals mentally contrast positive fantasies with reality and potential obstacles.
Society for Psychotherapy Research (SPR)
Marna S. Barrett, Ph.D.
Mood & Anxiety Disorders Treatment Research Unit
University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine
3535 Market St., Suite 670
Philadelphia, PA 19104