All That Positive Thinking You’re Doing Is Making You More Depressed

February 8, 2016  |  

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Raise your right hand if you’ve ever shared your dismal outlook on a situation with someone and they told you, “think positive!” Raise your left hand if you walked away from that conversation thinking, what does that mean?

For many, thinking positive is an optimistic mindset sustained by positive affirmations and the general attitude that everything happens for a reason, even if that thing isn’t particularly pleasant. For others, positive thinking is a fantasy land of unrealistic goals and desires, often not backed by any real action, and it’s that type of thinking that can make you even more depressed about your current state of affairs, so says research recently published in Psychological Science.

In four different studies, researchers had participants from school-aged children to adults fantasize about some aspect of the future and measured their state of mind at the time of the thinking and in a later meeting. Immediately, positive thinking about some sort of fantasy in the future relieved symptoms of depression, but in follow-up sessions the participants were actually more depressed. Gabriele Oettingen, PhD, lead author of the study, said the reason is:

“These positive fantasies relax us and de-energize us. We feel accomplished in the fantasized-about future, so we don’t actually put in the work needed to achieve that future.”

A better method of achieving one’s goals than expecting things to come into fruition by smply having positive thoughts is to use a tool the researchers created known as WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan). That way, Oettingen said, “We combat the positive fantasies with a clear sense of reality and then put a clear plan onto the obstacles of that reality.”

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