Q: I hear a lot about “manifesting” and how some people just believe, focus and think about something they want in their lives and then they use positive thinking to help them get it. It seems like wishful thinking, or a passive way to reach goals. Is there any science behind this, or proof it works?
—Positive Thinker

Dear Thinker:

Countless articles, books, and motivational seminars have promoted the ostensible power of positive thinking, putting forward the notion that you’ll get what you want if you believe fervently enough in a positive outcome. Individual prescriptions vary a great deal in their congruence with psychological research, ranging from Professor Harold Hill’s “think method” in The Music Man to more realistic ways of systematically building positive approaches to achieving goals.

There’s no convincing evidence that just thinking positively is enough. You have to actually do something to move things along. As you might expect, many psychologists have explored topics related to positive thinking, asking whether positive thinking actually helps people achieve their goals. And, as we’ve said many times, the answer to every interesting question in psychology is, “It depends.”

Once your positive thinking sets you on a path working toward goals you care about, you need to engage in a little “negative thinking.”

It turns out that the amount of energy people are willing to invest in pursuing goals depends on combined perceptions of the goals’ importance and feasibility. It’s not surprising that goals that are considered unimportant seldom come to fruition. And no matter how important something may be to you, if you don’t believe you can do it, you probably won’t invest much effort in trying.

Whether you achieve important goals in the future is informed by understanding why you haven’t achieved important goals in the past. Some individuals lack self-confidence or its close cousin, self-efficacy—the belief that you’re capable of accomplishing the tasks you undertake. Low self-confidence and low self-efficacy understandably limit one’s potential to achieve goals. If you doubt that doing so is possible, it’s hard even to start, let alone persist in the face of difficulty.

All this is to say that when you’re feeling doubtful or even hopeless, engaging in some positive thinking may be of benefit. Envisioning your ability to succeed at a hard task can give your motivation a boost, increasing the energy you exert in pursuit of the goal. When success seems a realistic possibility, it’s easier to get moving and to surmount the inevitable obstacles that arise along the path to accomplishment.

But once you’ve committed to a goal, positive thinking tends to be less helpful. Paradoxically, spending a lot of time imagining yourself achieving your goal (positive thinking) can diminish the time you spend actually doing the work required to make the goal happen.

Once your positive thinking sets you on a path working toward goals you care about, you need to engage in a little “negative thinking.” Specifically, you have to start identifying all of the obstacles that may prevent you from achieving your goal.

There are two benefits of negative thinking at this stage. One is that the amount of sustained energy you have after you commit to a goal is increased by focusing on the gap between where you are right now and where you want to be. Recognizing what you haven’t achieved can create an optimal sense of dissatisfaction that can be quite motivating.

Of course, the road to any important goal is filled with potholes, so a second benefit of negative (realistic) thinking is that it alerts you to impending obstacles and reduces the frequency of unhappy surprises. People you thought would be helpful may turn out not to be as helpful as you had imagined. Resources you thought were available may not materialize. Achieving your goal may require more steps than you considered initially.

The more work you do up front to think about and plan for the obstacles you may face as you pursue an important goal, the more likely you are to minimize the damage they do to your plans. As the old scout motto says, “be prepared.”

Notice that this whole discussion assumes that you actually have to do a lot of work to achieve the things that are really important to you. An alternative view of manifesting is that your having positive thoughts increases the degree to which chance favors your actions; that is, maybe thinking positive thoughts makes you lucky. In this regard, positive thinking does have a few things to recommend it.

Many studies have demonstrated that what you notice about the world around you is related to what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling. People who are feeling good tend to notice more positive opportunities when they arise. People who are feeling bad tend to notice more of the negative things. Noticing positive aspects of your life circumstance gives you a chance to act on them in ways that might bring about what you desire. In this way, positive thinking can make you more likely to notice a beneficial turn of events.

In addition, there are compatibility effects in memory. Feeling good increases the likelihood that you’ll remember positive things about the past. Feeling bad often leads to remembering more negative things. As you reflect on the past, the more positive your outlook, the more that you remember your having achieved good things. And a lot of your satisfaction with life in the present depends on what you remember about what has happened to you in the past. So, thinking happy thoughts can resonate with the positive things that you have already experienced and make them more likely to influence your self-perceptions.

All of this is to say that thinking positively contributes to feelings of happiness and optimism. But, when you need to buckle down and build your future, recognizing what needs to be done, anticipating potential obstacles, and planning for overcoming them are essential components of effective thinking.
—Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke


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This advice column is part of the Texas Optimism Project, a sponsored partnership between Texas Monthly and Frost Bank’s Opt for Optimism initiative.

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