There has been a real stigma attached to thinking negatively. Any time someone vocalizes a negative thought they are promptly told to think more positively. Nervous about that big presentation you’re giving next week? Think you’re going to bomb that big test? Want to look great in that new dress, but you’re feeling a little fat? Stop being so negative! Simply imagine yourself succeeding at something you want to happen, and you will most certainly reach your goal. Previous studies have even backed that idea, heck, there’s a whole field out there about positive psychology! But now researchers are refining the picture. Over-fantasizing about how greatly you will succeed may actually be hurting your chances of success.
One possible explanation for this is that idealized thinking can zap motivation levels. In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology researchers asked college student volunteers to think through a fantasy version of an experience and then evaluated the fantasy’s effect on the subjects and on how things unfolded in reality.
When volunteers envisioned the most positive outcome, their energy levels, as measured by blood pressure, dropped, and they reported having a worse experience with the actual event than those who had conjured more realistic or even negative visions.
This also helps explain why citizens of less economically sound countries often report greater happiness than citizens of wealthier ones. They are not spending time filling their heads with delusional ideas of their futures, they accept things the way they are and work to better their lives as best they can.
To assess subjects’ real-life experiences, the researchers compared lists of goals that subjects had set for themselves against what they had actually accomplished and also relied on self-reports. “When you fantasize about it—especially when you fantasize something very positive—it’s almost like you are actually living it,” says Heather Barry Kappes of New York University, one of the study’s co-authors. That tricks the mind into thinking the goal has been achieved, draining the incentive to “get energized to go and get it,” she explains. Subjects may be better off imagining how to surmount obstacles instead of ignoring them.