The Power of Positive Thinking: What Works

The past several decades have seen a proliferation of work focusing on the idea that how we think drives how we feel, and that positive thinking can have many benefits. The range of theories and advocates of positive thinking are extremely varied. Cognitive Behavior Therapists have examined and focused on ways to effectively assist people in identifying negative and destructive patterns of thinking and modify/change these patterns. Positive psychologists have focused on using positive thinking to help clients and organizations more effectively accomplish their goals. The emphasis on positive thinking is seen in a variety of other areas: from advocates of Vision Boards and the belief that imagining and focusing on what you want, how you want to feel, will enable you to obtain these things; to coaching approaches which emphasis goal setting; to a variety of self-help gurus who focus on positive thinking.

A number of writers have traced the focus on positive thinking back to the work of Dale Carnegie, the author of how to “Win friends and influence people,” originally published in 1936. Others have argued that the roots of this philosophy go much deeper. Regardless, the emphasis on positive thinking has long been present in American culture. There has also been a critique of these approaches from William Ryan’s “Blaming the Victim” to Barbara Erenrich’s sharp critique of positive psychology, “Bright Sided”, to the less well known and more academically focused “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking,” by Julie Norem, which identifies the benefits of negative thinking, specifically of thinking like “ neurotic boy scout” and preparing for negative events. In addition, there have been more subtle critiques of the emphasis on changing one’s thinking particularly by advocates of ACT and related therapeutic approaches which have emphasized a greater acceptance of one’s thoughts and feelings.

Recently, I happened across the work of a German born psychologist, Gabriele Oettingen who has developed a research-based strategy to develop what she believes is an effective strategy for using positive thinking to accomplish specific goals. This approach, which has the acronym, WOOP, is detailed in Oettingen’s book, Rethinking Positive Thinking Inside The New Science of Motivation. In addition, there is a website, and app, as well as videos to guide users through the WOOP approach. The WOOP approach recommends that one: identifying a wish, a goal; formulate a clear outcome, what one wishes to accomplish; identify obstacles to the plan (however, the key here is that the obstacles are ways that you as a person will hinder yourself in accomplishing your goal or wish, not how others or outside factors will impede you); and then formulating a plan to accomplish your goal: Wish, Outcome, Obstacles, and Plan. What makes this approach different from many other approaches is that the emphasis is on identifying how we get in our own way and how to overcome our self-imposed obstacles.

The advantage of the WOOP approach over many other positive thinking approaches is that there is clear evidence supporting its effectiveness. In addition, the website and app offer clear and specific strategies to help people utilize this strategy. WOOP focuses on helping us address obstacles that we all can control, the ones we create for ourselves. We recommend this approach to those looking to make positive changes in their lives.

WOOP website