Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Downside of Positive Thinking

I hadn't planned to share these truly bad "street sketches" from last week, but I find they may be a good illustration to something I wanted to share about positive thinking. In college, I dated a boy on the basketball team who was learning the then new technique of visualization. The theory was that it was as helpful, if not more, to sit with eyes closed, visualizing making the perfect shot, going through the mechanics of a perfect basket but only in the mind's eye. Alright, you've got it now, got the technique burned into your brain, so the next time you step up to shoot, your brain knows what to tell your body to do.

I was skeptical of this approach but have tried it off and on over the years since it continues to get praise for improving performance. Mostly I was envisioning the various steps to completing a project, seeing myself as successful in the end, rather than how I really felt - unsure and maybe even daunted. All I found it did for me was convince my mind that I had already completed the task I was visualizing. It would come as a shock to me later on when I realized I'd been assuming I'd gone and done something when in fact I had not.

And as for positive thinking overall - well, as I alluded in my last post, I am not naturally a positive thinker. I'm a glass half empty sort of gal, one who has typically spent much time figuring out the worst case scenario of every situation so as not to be caught unprepared. I can't tell you how many people (including the husband) chided me for wasting my time preparing for things that likely would never happen. But that is how I'm wired and all that preparation was a way to control anxiety when approaching the unknown, whereas that much prep for those wired otherwise would increase their anxiety. The book that pointed this out to me is The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. After reading it, I felt vindicated in my behavior, which actually decreased my tendency towards anxiety even more.

With that as a background, you might see how this article in The New Yorker, The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking, really resonated (in spite of the progress I've made in taking a calmer approach to life). I've always feared for people who go on these total positive jags, worried for the day when things would come crashing down around them, no positive thoughts able to fend it off. And here is that same thought:

...as the journalist Oliver Burkeman noted in “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking,” “Ceaseless optimism about the future only makes for a greater shock when things go wrong; by fighting to maintain only positive beliefs about the future, the positive thinker ends up being less prepared, and more acutely distressed, when things eventually happen that he can’t persuade himself to believe are good.” 

Bingo! But what about the idea of visualizing yourself doing something successfully until you convince yourself that you truly can - a sort of building of confidence, silencing the left brain perhaps that is always so eager to point out our failings?

According to a great deal of research, positive fantasies may lessen your chances of succeeding. In one experiment, the social psychologists Gabriele Oettingen and Doris Mayer asked eighty-three German students to rate the extent to which they “experienced positive thoughts, images, or fantasies on the subject of transition into work life, graduating from university, looking for and finding a job.” Two years later, they approached the same students and asked about their post-college job experiences. Those who harbored positive fantasies put in fewer job applications, received fewer job offers, and ultimately earned lower salaries. The same was true in other contexts, too. Students who fantasized were less likely to ask their romantic crushes on a date and more likely to struggle academically. Hip-surgery patients also recovered more slowly when they dwelled on positive fantasies of walking without pain.

Is this proof of my theory that visualizations merely trick the brain into believing something has actually happened, not that it still needs to be done? Through similar research, Heather Barry Kappes (London School of Economics) found that fantasies hamper progress because they dull the will to succeed:

“Imagining a positive outcome conveys the sense that you’re approaching your goals, which takes the edge off the need to achieve.” Oettingen and Kappes asked two groups of undergraduates to imagine the coming week. One group fantasized that the week would go as well as possible, whereas the other group conjured a more neutral version of the week. One week later, when the students returned to the lab, the positive fantasizers felt that they had accomplished less over the previous week.

So how does this relate back to my street sketches? Well, I've gotten caught up recently in admiring different kinds of sketch journals, so beautifully rendered although the artists insist they are "just sketching". Then I was pointed towards an urban sketchers organization (I had no idea!) and started looking at their loose and lovely renderings of buildings. I want to do that, I thought. I CAN do that, I thought. And I started actively envisioning myself on the streets, sketch journal in hand, making lovely renditions of buildings around town. I'd end up with a beautiful record I could share, plus brush up on my sketching skills. This would be fun!

The reality was much different of course. As much as I had visualized successful easy sketching, I was both out of practice and laboring under too high expectations. This was hard. This was not turning out as I envisioned. This was not the start to the beautiful sketch journal I wanted to create. I was so unnerved by that turret on the left that I nearly shut the sketchbook and drove off before drawing a single line. I had to do a mental reset, remind myself why I wanted to do this sketching in the first place (and although a beautifully rendered sketch journal would be nice, that's not the main reason). The next day, I parked where I could see the tower of the old mill, reminded myself this was practice and to draw loose, really look, and used pen rather than pencil. Amazing how much difference using the pen made, by the way. Did I get the angles right? Not by a long shot. Was it a good exercise anyway? Yes it was. Will I continue to add buildings to this journal. With any luck, you bet. Enough visualization - time to commit to actually doing, the best way in my opinion to get better at anything.

But  do visualizing and fantasizing and generally thinking positively have redeeming qualities? Of course they do.

I asked Oettingen whether positive fantasies might sometimes be useful. She suggested that they might, if a person considered the specific steps that he would take to overcome the barriers to success. Kappes said that fantasies might be useful when you’re unable to satisfy a need—when you’re famished and hours from eating, for example—because they temporarily blunt the pang. There’s nothing wrong with getting lost in fantasy, as long as you aren’t ultimately hoping to indulge in the real thing. 

Now, I can go along with that. Fantasies are a great escape and even means to stumbling upon solutions, but there's nothing wrong with reality checks as well.

So is the glass half empty or half full for you? Do you visualize, fantasize or just get on with life?


Living to work - working to live said...

Ah, now a question I can answer. I don't visualise in the way you describe it. And I don't think I fantasise - well not so much, though sometimes I do imagine a few scenarios that would make life a bit easier all round. I do visualise a finished piece of artwork and often if that is clear in my mind, as opposed to in my sketchbook, it will be much more successful than one that is planned in detail in the sketchbook.

Generally, I am a cup half full kind of gal, though lately I have found myself worrying more and more about my family and my job.

I really interesting blog post. Thanks.

Nola G said...

What an interesting blog post. Such food for thought. Thank you. I am very much like you. Planning for every eventuality both good and bad reduces stress and anxiety and I feel prepared and confident that I can cope. I don't like surprises. I'm also a neat freak. A cluttered and messy environment is not conducive to clear thinking or creativity. Structure and order go a long way towards lessening stress and anxiety. Do you feel like this too?

The Idaho Beauty said...

Nola, how did I not know about you? I'm so glad you commented (and liked this post!) so I could go check out your blog. I love what you're doing over there and will start following your progress. Sounds like we are kindred spirits. Although I do let my studio get into awful messes, basically I tend to like things well-organized. It is indeed easier to work when things are neat and tidy. And I like your observation about structure and order lessening stress and anxiety. That is so true for me.

The Idaho Beauty said...

Hilary, yes, the sort of visualization described here is different from the sort of visualization we do coming up with designs. And funny - I too am less successful with designs I've tried to work out on paper than when I go with what's in my head and let it develop as I go.

Chris said...

Shelia, what a great blog. You have really given us a lot to think about here. I don't think that I ever really do the positive visualization thing. With my science background I tend to think in realistic terms and find that I am a problem solver most of the time. I thought that it was interesting that the positive stuff is not always beneficial. And unfortunately I have always been the glass half empty kinda person even though I am a pretty happy kind of person.