Optimize Interview: The Science of Making Your Dreams Come True with Gabriele Oettingen


You’re listening to the science of making your dreams come true, an optimal living interview with Gabrielle Oda engine and Brian Johnson hi. This is Brian. Welcome back to the optimal living interview series.

Today I am thrilled to be chatting with Gabrielle oten Jen, who is one of the world’s, leading researchers in the new science of motivation. She wrote the phenomenal book rethinking positive thinking.

A ton of positive psychologists referenced her work. She’s written over 100. I believe articles and book chapters on the effects of future thoughts on cognition, emotion and behavior. She’s, a professor of psychology at NYU and the University of Hamburg, and I just fell in love with this book and immediately reached out to set up this chat Gabrielle.

I really appreciate you taking the time and I’m excited to explore. Well, thank you for having me well, you’re, doing some important work for the last 20 plus years, and I’d love for you to describe just kind of in it on the highest level what it means to rethink positive thinking.

Then we’ll drive into some of the details. Well, positive thinking has had a very positive connotation, not only in the United States, but probably in the Western world and people who had been kind of looking at positive thinking as an anchor of reaching success and putting in the necessary motivation to actually achieve what they Want to achieve in their life and yeah, we thinking positive thinking means.

Maybe we should think twice if we want to reap all the benefits of positive thinking and not just assume that positive thinking has always positive consequences for our well-being and long-term development, which leads us to the downside of positive thinking.

Specifically, the downside of dreaming and and again to preface this all of Gabrielle’s. Work is is empirically based and in research tested, and just one of the reasons why I’m so excited about this – and you talked about in your book – is that a lot of the the popular self-help stuff, just hasn’t rigorously Tested and as you brought some of the ideas into your lab, you found that not only do they not work, they were actually detrimental in many ways right.

There can be detrimental when it comes to fulfilling our wishes and our dreams about the future. When it comes to just having a pleasure in terms of dreaming at the moment they’re. Having some good thoughts, then they’re.

Fine, and you know everybody who wants to improve his mood. A little bit is allowed to just dream about the future and about the positive things which the future might hold, but if it comes to actually implementing these wishes and actually going the hard way or fulfilling these these wishes, then there can be detrimental and they are Not only not helpful, but they actually can be really hurtful for implementing our goals and fulfilling our wishes.

I love it. So if you just want to feel good, then merely fantasizing about a wonderful future. You can achieve that end, but if you actually want to achieve that your wishes and bring them to fruition, then then, as you say, we want to kind of bring in some reality, but can you describe for us some of your research that the in particularly I Was fascinated by the work on the lower blood pressure and how quickly that occurred and how that led to less motivation and, ultimately less action? Well, we started off with simple studies where we just looked as how positive dreams and fantasies predict effort and success for the future.

So, for example, we started off with a study with women who wanted to reduce their weight and we had enrolled in a weight reduction program and the more positively these women had fenced fantasized about success in the program, the fewer pounds they had lost three months and One year, and even two years later or university graduates, those who had positively fantasized about an easy transition into work life they received fewer job, offers two years later and then earned fewer dollars two years later, and they also sent fewer applications out than those who also Admitted some negative thoughts about the future or, for example, people who had surgery on their hips or hip replacement surgeries.

So people who had dreamed and fantasized before they went into surgery about successfully recovering and having a kind of easy way out of the hospital. They could move their hip joint, less well after two weeks and they could walk fewest stairs and they had less good recovery.

As judged by the physical therapies than the people who, in addition to their positive dreams, also admitted to some problems in reality in their thinking, were in the more students fantasized positively about success in their exams, the less well, they did in the exams themselves.

So that’s, what we found we found or in another study, the more positively students fantasized about the future, the less depressed they were at the moment, but the more depressed them got over time. So we found, as pleasurable as these fantasies are at the moment they do predict low effort and low well-being and low development over time, and that led us, then, into these experiments.

You were talking about the the energy yeah that’s, fantastic. All that is astonishing, tell us more about the the experiments with the energy yeah. Then then we went on and thought now if we induce positive fantasies in green about the future in people as compared to negative thoughts about the future or as compared to sexual thoughts or as compared to no thoughts at all.

If we do that, if we induce these positive fantasies, but then people just get more relaxed and less energized, because we reason if these positive fantasies fane already having achieved the desired future, then people should relax because they feel they’re already there and Then they can calmly relax.

Don’t need to put in all the effort anymore needed to achieve the positive future and that’s, exactly what we found. So people who have been induced to fantasize positively about the future. Actually, their blood pressure went down and not only the blood pressure went down, but they also felt less energized than the people in the control groups.

Those who joins these positive future or those who were induced to produce petrol, sobs or no thoughts at all, which then, of course, is correlating the led to the the lower levels of motivation and, ultimately, the lower levels of action than the lower levels of performance and Success right exactly so, those who have been induced to positively fantasize felt less energized and this little energy then or the less energy mediated.

The success, for example, success in doing all your work in a kind of week of daily life, so those who have been induced to positively fantasize about success in the upcoming week felt less energized and this feelings of less energization actually mediated or predicted than the lower Performance during the wee, every time I mean we’re at it, thought about it.

That’s, amazing, and even as I hear you describe it, it’s. Just it’s, it’s astonishing. It’s; it’s so counter to what I think we’ve been conditioned to think and so powerful, and I want to get to what what you discovered.

You could add to the process to healthfully energize and just make a distinction. One of the things when I shared this. One of the comments I got was that is she’s, saying that we shouldn’t, relax and and kind of you know, take a take a breath and all that good stuff and thinking of the distinction is that that, of course, We want to oscillate and know how to relax, and you know, recover and take care of our immune system induced the relaxation response whatever.

But when we’re setting and envisioning our future, then we want to bring reality in which is less relaxing and more catalyzing. That necessity to act. Is that accurate, that’s exactly right and that’s? Actually, what we learn from our participants in these early studies, we learned that those who fantasized about the desired future but at the same time, also considered the obstacles and the hindrances and the and the temptations on the way to implement the positive future that those were The ones who were more successful so we actually observed our participants in the prior studies to actually come up with what we called a strategy and the strategy is called mental, contrasting mental contrasting of the future and the reality.

And what mental contrasting queenly is is very simple. People imagined fulfilling their wishes and attaining the goals, and they’re really imagined it. So that is exactly what we just talked about as positive dreams about the desired future.

So these positive dreams and positive fantasies, but then after they experience these positive fantasies about the future, then they shift gears and then they say: oh, what holds me back from actually achieving my goals and what holds me back from actually fulfilling this wish and the combination Of these positive dreams about the future and then saying to yourself what is it in me that holds me back that stops me from going all the way to fulfill these wishes.

What is my main obstacle and then imagining that obstacle? That will then make me aware whether I should actually go and invest and implement the desired future or whether I should actually sort of say up.

These obstacles are too big. They are just not worth actually taking all the effort of overcoming and then people will kind of let go or they will postpone to a better time or they will actually delegate so mental contrasting of the positive future of the desired future.

With the aspects of reality that are in me that stand in the way of actually implementing this future, what it does what it helps you is understand whether these obstacles can be overcome, and then I really fully invest.

Then I go for it. Then I’m determined. Then I really love it or whether the obstacles are such that I better let go because striving is futile anyway, and then I can let go without bad conscience and say: okay, I put my energies into the more promising endeavors.

I love that distinction and so to go back to the beginning, a couple of things that I want to highlight one. It is really important to start with the positive fantasy and the wish for the future, and your research showed that you can’t.

Do it the other way around right, clinked, you don’t start with the reality in the challenges and then try to imagine the deal future. You want to start with the ideal future and then rub it up against reality in the challenges, and I love the way you say discover the obstacle with not in the external environment but within us that will preclude us from attaining that wish and and then again You just made such the big distinction of then, when we’re willing to look at reality rather than just stared our vision board and imagine the ideal outcome and fantasize about it.

When we see the potential obstacles, we can either choose to engage or disengage, and that disengagement is really really important right yeah. That is important, because so many people are kind of fantasized for years and sometimes in decades about fulfilling some wishes they have and these fantasies never really bear out in action and that’s, where we actually are when we started off when we talked About the the detrimental effects of positive fantasies, but when you actually consider what it is in you that holds you back from actually fulfilling your wishes, then you understand what the obstacle, what the true obstacle, the real obstacle is in you and then you will understand whether You can overcome it and whether you want to overcome it or whether you want to actually say okay, come on this isn’t ridiculous, wish.

I have let’s, bury that and let’s. Go for something which is actually more feasible or more worthwhile pursuing and then so. Mental contrasting in a way is a way. Is a strategy to clean up your life to really go for these things which are worthwhile? There belong to you and you belong to them and they’re feasible and to let go from projects that are either not worth pursuing or just simply not feasible.

And then you can rid yourself of these kind of heavy loads of too many goals of too many wishes, and you can get free for new, but then also very promising a lot of projects yeah I love it. Can we go into a little bit more on the challenging but feasible, so the mental contrasting helps us that, but can you tell us why it’s so important that we have challenging goals that stretch us, but that are feasible as well yeah? If I want to implement a goal or if I want to fulfill a wish – and I have positive fantasies for the very easy wishes like just grabbing a donut or you know just going and opening the window or something some kind of routine things, the positive fantasy Or the fear image of that action is enough for doing it, but when it’s, getting a little bit more complex and our dear wishes most of the time are complex to fulfill when it’s getting more complex when it’s getting more challenging, then I need these strategies and then I need mental contrasting so for the easy wishes I don’t need any strategies I just do it, but for the more complex and more to come, complicated wishes that really needs Kind of thought and effort, then I need the strategy so that way we say: ok, a wish that is challenging, but then also it needs to be feasible.

If I want to fulfill that, wish needs to be feasible in the sense that I need to have the means of actually fulfilling my wish. So if you want to fulfill my wish, then you can sort of gear up or kind of sort of come up with a wish that is challenging because there you need the strategy and that is feasible, meaning there.

The strategy will work, so mental contrasting is good for wishes that are challenging and feasible if you want to fulfill these wishes. If you want to sort out your wishes, if you want to understand what you want to go for and what you want to actually let go, then you can say: ok, any wish should be thought of.

I can’t, come up with any wish in my life and then by doing mental contrast, I will discover whether it is feasible or whether it is not feasible. And then I can go for the feasible ones and let go from the from the unfeasible ones, that’s great and even break potentially, if you just have a big goal that you find is actually unfeasible in the near term.

Well then, break that down, extend it as a possible. Maybe but let’s. Look at it, as maybe a discrete chunk that you can meet the standard of challenging and feasible right and then kind of baby step.

Your way to the bigger goal you can do that too I mean you, can use metal contrasting for these large life goals and if you want to get clarity, just think about a wish, which is kind of very dear to you and then apply mental contrasting to It and then you will get clarity or if you have a kind of funny feeling in your stomach about something, let’s, say a telephone call or a meeting or some relationship issue, or some kind of you know, project in your work or something Apply mental contrasting to it, and then you will understand what you really want to get out of that and what is your impediment to getting out of it? What you want and then you will understand just by understanding what the obstacle is.

You will understand whether you really want to overcome that obstacle or whether you want to actually sort of let go of the project and turn to something else. That’s great, so that’s. The first kind of half and obviously it evolved – and we’ll talk about how it did the emcee in the original MCI I so let’s.

Let’s, assume that we’ve mentally contrasted. We have a wish. We have the obstacle within us. We’ve mentally, contrasted that and then you’re working with your husband right and his work on implementation intentions to actually make a plan to achieve that.

Can you tell us about that right before our cut? Okay? Before I go to talk about to implementation intentions, let me briefly say something about how mental contrasting works. Mental contrasting is an imagery technique and you imagined a future and you identify and imagine the and what it does it.

Non-Consciously connects the future the wish fulfillment with the obstacle, and then it connects the obstacle with the means to overcome the obstacle, and it also helps you to interpret the reality as an obstacle.

So now the party, for example, on Saturday night, is not a fun party anymore, but it’s, an obstacle to getting a good grade on the exam on Tuesday. So once you imagine achieving a good grade in the exam and then you think about the party, the party is now an obstacle and not a fun event anymore.

So it changes the interpretation of the reality, the interpretation of the party, so all that happens non-consciously, including changes in energization and blood pressure. That happens not consciously as a consequence of the conscious, imager technique of mental contrasting, and the interesting thing is that these non conscious processes then mediate or then predict the behavior change, meaning the high effort you put into getting a good grade in the exam on Tuesday Or whatever wish you just had, so it is a conscious image technique leading to non-conscious processes.

That, then, will affect behavior change so that you can fulfill your wishes on the one hand, or let go from those that aren’t feasible, and we we know that these non conscious processes are important in behavior change.

What we also know is that the mental contrasting exercise links the obstacle of reality to the instrumental means of overcoming the obstacle. But if the obstacle is really kind of difficult to overcome and Peter gollwitzer, who is the creator of implementation intentions? And I thought we could actually put in addition to mental contrasting, add to mental contrasting implementation.

Intentions and implementation intentions are simple: if situation X, then I will behavior goal directed behavior. Why plants? So I would say if obstacle, if that obstacle occurs, then I will behavior to overcome obstacle, so that should strengthen that link, create deeper mental contrasting between the obstacle and the means to overcome the obstacle, the behavior to overcome the obstacle even more, and that then led To what we call mental contrasting with implementation intentions or m/c aii, in the scientific literature and in the in the world, it’s called whoop, because it is a four step process and tailing mental contrasting on the one side and implementation intentions.

On the other side, I love it. So MC III, for you, know, feeling businesslike and whoop fun with it. So whoop whish outcome obstacle plan. Can you walk us through that sure um whoop? Is this four-step strategy and before actually you do whoop, you might want to become a little bit calm and relaxed and you might want to say to yourself: okay.

This is a moment which I take for myself, and then you start and ask yourself actually what is a very important wish? I would like to realize I would like to fulfill what is a wish. I might have not thought about for a while or a wish, which is on my mind the time doesn’t matter, but it needs to be a wish which is actually very dear to you can be a wish for your life can be able For the next four weeks can be a wish for the next week can be a wish for the next 24 hours.

It can be a wish for the upcoming meeting. So the main thing is that you take a wish which is actually dear to you, which is important to you and then you could say. Okay, I take a wish which is challenging, but at the same time it is feasible, so something I actually could do.

I could achieve and then you formulate that wish in three to four words, so that’s, the W in Group. The next step is that you say what would be the best thing: the best outcome, if I fulfill myself that wish, what would be the best thing it can be, an emotion can be a result, can be a consequence, but one best thing and again you put It in front of your mind in three to four words, and once you did that you imagine experiencing that best outcome and you really go into your imagery and you let your mind go.

And then you take a few minutes to actually imagine that. So that’s, the first Oh in Boop, and once you imagined that best outcome, you change gears and then you say actually what is it in me that stops me from fulfilling that wish and experiencing that outcome? What is it in me? That holds me back.

What is my inner main and then again, you formulate that in front of your mind in three to four words, and once you did that we will let your mind go again like before with the outcome. You just imagine that obstacle occurring when you take a few moments to actually imagine that out that obstacle, that’s, the second goal in whoop, and once you did that when you have imagined that obstacle, then you come to the p4 plan and the First step there, as you say, what could I do to overcome that obstacle? What could I think in order to conquer to master that obstacle? What action could I take to overcome that obstacle and then you think about that behavior and you formulate it again in three to four words, and then you form a simple: if obstacle now you put in the obstacle, then I will behavior and now you put in Your behavior plan and then you repeat that plan once more in front of your mind, you say: if obstacle imagine that obstacle, then I will behavior and now you imagine that behavior and now you can repeat it once more.

If obstacle, then I will behavior and that’s, basically it so that was the P in the loop. So you had wish outcome obstacle and then plan and that’s. All that’s. The four-step process procedure of whoop.

Wonderful, we articulated, I actually walked through that guided imagery as we did. It was great so good and, as you said, you can we can to our lives. We can apply it to the next 12 months to the next month or a week or even day or even meeting, and I’ve been doing it on just kind of practicing on all of those fronts and it’s.

It’s, really really cool just to challenge ourselves to see what do we really want here? Okay, well, don’t feel great, and then what might get in the way? And then what would I do in that situation from the very mundane to the more significant it’s? It’s.

I’m, just loving practicing it and playing with it yeah. You can actually practice it yeah. You can utilize it in your life. What I did, what I do is I do my whoop in the morning and and then I go through the day and sometimes in the evening.

I feel this meeting went well today or I think, oh, I really don’t know, but I just needed to go jogging in the evening or I say you know we had my papers done. I just don’t know. How do I do that and then, when I really think about it, then I did that I formulated that wish in the morning and I moved it, but since whoop produces these non-conscious consequences, which I’ve, been talking about before I don’t realize that I actually act in line with what I formulated in the group exercise and that’s.

Fine, because later on, you say, oh my. I kind of acted that way, but it was effortless and that’s. A nice thing it’s. It’s, a kind of at the moment once you act, it’s. Effortless it’s a little bit. You need mental effort.

While you’re doing it in the in the imagery technique, certainly it needs some mental effort to go through the four-step process. But then, when you’re actually acting is it is effortless and you refer to the non conscious.

It reminds me of Heidi grant Halverson, who’s. Obviously a big fan of student of your work and references it and succeed. She compares our non conscious mind to a NASA supercomputer. In our conscious mind, it will post it essentially.

Is it almost as if we’re programming that non conscious mind to just do what needs to get done in and that operates it’s such a more powerful level than our our basic consciousness? Actually, Heidi is a student of us who worked with us here at NYU.

Oh, I forgot you said NYU with you, okay, there was fun. No sure I mean it is a little bit like you, you at the moment you I’m, determined how you will act in the problematic situation and by doing that, you conquer the situation in a way which we usually are not.

Usually we don’t. Have this help because when we say wish outcome obstacle plan, then we have all these non-conscious processes already in place once we actually think about this wish all this kind of runs off by itself and that helps us a lot.

We don’t need to decide again whether we want to drink water and let’s say we want to drink a little less wine or a little less alcohol, or we want to eat less. So we want to jar more or so we don’t need to think in this situation anymore.

We just do it and in that respect it is a little bit like we program ourselves to do that. What we think is good for us yeah and is that kind of basically the pre-commitment concepts of kind of willpower preservation or like itself yeah I mean whatever term you put on it.

I prefer to sort of you know, go and and just see what we found in the lab and and and describe it. You know the we know that the future and obstacle is linked. We know the obstacle is linked to the instrumental means to overcome it.

So in that way this you can say that is willpower yeah, but it’s, not conscious willpower. I love it. I love conservative. Let’s. Look at the data. Let’s, not go outside of that when you do just very practically when you’re doing your morning loop.

Is it imagining your broader goals, your life goals or more the day goals, or a little bit of both um? If I have a kind of life decision to do, then it’s, a life goal, but very often it’s. Just the day goal it’s.

You know what do I wish for today? What what is it that that I would be happy to have accomplished in the evening? You know maybe a nice interaction with some family member or some project I would like to complete or some Fitness issue or just having a good time.

Finally, I’m, worn or kind of not being rushed or um. You know whatever it is that whatever just falls for today and then I’m in the evening. I can say: okay, what did I do when those things which wish I completed great and those which er had been kind of tackling but but half completed, then that appears is a new wish on the next day, so it’s.

A companion would be the companion which you can take in your life and it will help you to to master your life challenges it’s, not something you know, a pill which you throw in and then you’re. Suddenly, the CEO of coca-cola or something um, that’s, that’s, not what it is.

It’s, a companion you can take in your pocket and you can apply to yourself. You don’t need a coach or a trainer or a therapist or any anybody. You can apply to yourself. You can emancipate yourself, so you have always somebody who is just sort of helping you to conquer the challenges in your life.

So good. Well, is there we covered a lot, and I appreciate how articulate and concise and clear your wisdom is. Is there anything we didn’t talk about that? You’d, like to make sure we discuss well, maybe um there’s, one thing: if, if you visit the book my life dot org website, you will be able to kind of follow what we’re doing.

What the new research was is showing we have a couple of gadgets on there like an app where you get all the instructions for Boop. We have a little kind of audio guide where you can actually do what you’re jogging lots of little little things or whoop cards, or something and and this is kind of all free.

So you can, you can just go there and visit it and enjoy it, and I really do hope that loop will help a lot of people to just you know lead a better life of a kind of more involved life involved. The family involved the friends involved in work involved in nature, and so that they can use the time they have to a more fulfilling way.

That’s, fantastic and it was definitely excited to make sure people know about whoop. My life org, a bunch of cool things and tools, and the apps, and I’ve already had people giving me feedback that they’ve, already downloaded the app and they’re, loving it.

The idea of the card is so cool and then that I didn’t know about the audio little thing you can go through while you’re going through the jog and other things such good work again. Thank you. I appreciate all the energy and the decades of work that you’ve, put in to help us get more clarity on this and just really happy to be connected.

Thank You, Bryan. Thank you a lot for having me. We hope you enjoyed this optimal living interview.

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