Rethinking Positive Thinking: Why It's Time To Try Mental Contrasting

Positive affirmations – words you’re supposed to repeat over and over again in order to inspire yourself and change your life – are now a key theme in popular self-help culture, largely thanks to the success of books such as The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, which has sold over 30 million copies since it was published in 2006.
It’s a twisted logic – one that belongs in fairy tales. Going through a break-up? Just think good thoughts and imagine yourself happy again. Wish you had more money? Just tell yourself over and over again that your bank account overfloweth and soon it shall. Positive thinking has taken root in our culture and, like knotweed, forced its way into almost every aspect of our lives.
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It doesn’t take the world’s largest cynic to see the glaring flaws in hoping that the sheer force of positivity alone can change your life for the better. Sitting around meditating on riches and finery is unlikely to see me wake up draped in silks in a Mayfair apartment, clutching a bell to summon my butler.
But perhaps there is another, more practical way of achieving our life goals.
Photographed by Flora Maclean.
Enter 'mental contrasting', a psychological visualisation technique that aims to help you achieve your dreams by encouraging you to take the necessary steps towards them rather than sitting around meditating optimistically while waiting for the end goal to materialise.
Pioneered by German motivation psychologist Gabriele Oettingen in the early 2000s, mental contrasting has already been shown to improve health and academic performance, and even increase tolerance and social responsibility.
More recently, Dr Ainslea Cross, academic lead for health psychology at Derby University, has been studying mental contrasting in order to work out whether this technique can be applied to healthcare where personal change is needed – things such as quitting smoking, controlling diabetes, losing weight and managing stress levels. So far, her results suggest that it can.
"Mental contrasting is supercharged positive thinking," Dr Cross tells Refinery29. "Positive thinking helps us think about what we want in life, but mental contrasting is about realities and obstacles. It’s about asking: 'What do I actually need to do to make these goals happen?'"

Positive thinking helps us think about what we want in life, but mental contrasting is about realities and obstacles. It's about asking: 'What do I actually need to do to make these goals happen?'

To try it at home, she says, we simply need to remember the acronym WOOP:
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Wish
Outcome
Obstacle
Plan
In order to feel the benefits, Dr Cross says, we need to set time aside every day to think about what we wish to happen, to visualise how we will feel when we achieve our desired outcome, to think about what obstacles there are that could prevent us from achieving our outcome and then to sit and plan exactly how we intend to overcome these obstacles.
The key here is action: we can sit on the sofa all we like and visualise having a six-figure salary, or we can look at obstacles – such as lack of motivation, excessive alcohol intake and self-denial. You know it makes sense.
"The temptation in a world full of advertising is to allow yourself to be sold a dream," Dr Cross says.
"People use up a lot of energy thinking it would be great to go on that holiday, and look [a certain way], and unless we start looking at what needs to change in the current situation to make things happen, and formulating plans, it won’t happen."
And so the answer to why mental contrasting works is about as straightforward as life advice gets.
"It’s all about applying your brain and redirecting energy into taking action," Dr Cross explains. She has reviewed research as to the efficacy of this approach and found that there are high levels of success among "different populations, communities and ages, from children to adolescents and adults."
This, she says, is largely due to the flexibility of the technique: you can set goals about whatever you like and plan accordingly.
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The "dosage" – how frequently one should practise mental contrasting and for how long – varies from person to person.
"For some people, mental imagery comes very easily and they will get it straightaway. For others, it’s more like a learning effect and it comes with practice," Dr Cross notes. "With the data we were looking at, it takes from between seven days to a month to see some benefits from it. What’s great is that a lot of the case studies start applying it to other aspects of their life and doing it spontaneously, too."
However, there are some people for whom mental contrasting could have the opposite of the desired effect.
"The idea is that it works on goals that you are quite confident about and think you can be successful in achieving," Dr Cross explains.
"If you shoot too high straightaway and it doesn’t work, some people will just abandon [their goal]. People need to break it down. If they [aimed for] something that was too big or not quite achievable at the time, it can have a negative effect and demotivate [them]."

Think of mental contrasting as practical positive thinking with a heavy serving of realism.

"A prime, classic example would be looking at the London Marathon and thinking, Right I’m going to do that right now. Most of us wouldn’t be able to, and for some it would be almost impossible. It’s about breaking that down and setting more immediate goals to help you along the way."
In terms of negative effects, though, unlike the stolid mantra of positive thinking, there aren’t really any beyond the danger of aiming too high and setting yourself up for a fall. So think of mental contrasting as practical positive thinking with a heavy serving of realism.
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Yet for many of us, the thought of setting aside those 20 minutes or so a day to visualise our goals, the obstacles, and work on a plan to overcome them is daunting enough.
I sit down cross-legged on the floor in my bedroom and apply the technique. Visualising my goal comes easily. Just as Dr Cross advised, I’ve chosen to lose my mental contrasting virginity with a bitesize outcome: finally putting away the leftover clothes and possessions currently hoarded in the spare room in my house, which have been there since I moved in three months ago.
I have bigger dreams and ambitions of course, but my reluctance to tidy up is one I’m determined to overcome.
I bring to mind a clear and empty space, with everything neatly folded and displayed to make maximum use of my limited storage space.
It’s hard to stop my concentration drifting, particularly when I feel my dog's warm, damp tongue gently licking my hand at various intervals. It seems I have found my first obstacle, so I place him in the front room and shut the door while I finish the practice.
Other obstacles I come up with include time, a constant feeling of tiredness and, if I’m truly honest with myself, an inclination to do as little as possible when I am at home. I’m extremely lazy when I’m not charging about working and campaigning, and would rather nap than do most other things.
The next stage is planning how I’m going to overcome these obstacles – the P in WOOP – but that may not be as simple as the goal itself.
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In order to carve out more time, I’m going to have to do less, which will involve me working less. I’m freelance so this would mean taking a hit on my paycheque, which is far from appealing. I suppose I could socialise and go to the gym less instead, but then I’d be sacrificing my personal wellbeing.
If I did both of these things, however, I might find myself with more energy and be more inclined to undertake basic domestic tasks than taking to my bed like a Victorian lady in the midst of a funny turn at the mere thought of pairing my socks.
When I bring myself back into the room from my meditative WOOP state, I feel relaxed, fairly confident, and with a little motivation right there and then to get started. I take a bag and start folding the contents, all the while ignoring the overwhelming urge to lie down and shut my eyes.
"To give yourself a boost if you’re finding it hard, try thinking about past successes," I remember Dr Cross telling me.
So again, I keep things small and visualise the mountain of washing up I ploughed through this morning – though, admittedly, my main motivation for doing that was being able to reach the tap so that I could fill the kettle up.
Nonetheless, I think hard, which leads me to deftly position a candle on the mantelpiece in my room. Here’s where my motivation for the day ends, however, and I’m quickly distracted by a phone call from a friend inviting me out that evening. Do I choose the company of my four walls and a chest of drawers, or my sanity? Alas, I picked option three: another early night. And will await the results of the second stage of mental contrasting tomorrow.
To really, truly discover if this works for me, I’m going to have to commit to keeping this up for some time, which is another thing I could potentially mentally contrast on and break down further.
Where does the planning and obstacle-overcoming end and the achievement begin? At this point, it’s hard to say. Even so, I’ve got a damn sight better chance of getting anything done by taking repeated action than I do by sitting around procrastinating and trying to positive think it into reality. That’s an absolute no-brainer, surely?
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