I spoke with Oettigen about what could be more a practical and effective approach: a concept she has christened “mental contrasting.” In her book, she argues that while optimism alone isn’t enough, positive thinking coupled with an understanding of the obstacles that stand in our way is the key to achieving significant behavior change.
Magdalena Puniewska: Your book centers on the idea that in order to successfully achieve our goals, we need to add a dash of realism to our positivity. Could you explain how that works?
Gabriele Oettigen: We all have goals, big and small, personal and professional. We may fantasize about what it would be like to achieve them—for example, how nice it would be to have that corner office or to be 10 pounds lighter. But after this bout of dreaming, what we should also do is perform a procedure called mental contrasting—that is, examine the barriers that stand in the way of us actually attaining that goal. Visualizing the desired future and then imagining the obstacles can actually help us be more successful than positive thinking alone.
Puniewska: You argue that being optimistic about the future is not enough. Why not? Why can’t a positive attitude carry you on to achieving your goals?
Oettigen: The problem that we often run into with this is that when people only think about a positive future, they’ve already attained this future in their minds, so they have little motivation to actually act on it. We saw this in many of our studies: When we had participants just dream about a positive future, whether it was losing weight or asking a crush out on a date, those that simply fantasized about it were less likely to shed the extra pounds or find the courage to ask out a potential love interest, because in their mind, they had already done so. They imagined themselves, for example, as being slimmer, so they had no incentive to take action. They were already slimmer in their head. When we followed up with them weeks or months later, we found that they were less likely to have taken action than those participants that had indulged in a positive reality, but then were also asked to perform mental contrasting.
Puniewska: So, are there any instances where dreaming can be a good thing?
Oettigen: Dreaming can provide a welcome distraction if you’re faced with a waiting game in which you have no control, like waiting for test results or exam scores. It’s when there isn’t even the option of taking action that fantasies can be beneficial, because they allow for an escape.
It also depends on how you define dreaming. If you say that fantasizing about the future can give you information about what you really like and don’t like, then dreams are a great sort of virtual exploration, where you can investigate your desires without a commitment. For example, let’s say you are a college student and you’re thinking about what professional routes to take after you graduate. You may sit down and think about becoming a nurse and how nice it would be to interact with patients and take care of them. Plus, you really like biology class. But then as you’re fantasizing about your day at the hospital, you think, well, the hours would be really long, and a lot of nurses suffer from burnout—what you really want is more of a 9-to-5 job, still in the medical field, but just not as demanding in terms of hours. Your wish will change from “being a nurse” to “finding a job in the medical field that still allows me ample leisure time.” By doing this kind of dreaming, you can really dig deeper and explore your interests and needs.