What if negative thinking was good?

Created by Norman Vincent Peale in 1952, positive thinking has been taken on by a growing number of followers. As proof, the escalating number of books on the subject. However, in Dr Laurie Santos’s excellent podcast “The Happiness Lab”, she explains Michael Phelps’s incredible feat, and how the swimmer accomplished his Olympic dream by imagining the worst situations possible.

So negative thinking is positive after-all?

Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps’s trainer, made Michael Phelps go one step further in his training. As well as intense physical training, he was imposed visualisation, also called mental imagery. This technique used by many athletes consists in imagining an experience and activating all the senses that add to the experience, as to have an experience as close to reality as possible.

Indeed, science has proved that our brain cannot differentiate real events and imagined events and that therefore imagining an action or doing that very same action activates the same functions in our brain. This technique isn’t only appliable to professional athletes and can be put to use in your everyday life; for example, when preparing for a job interview, an oral exam or even to help reduce public speaking stress.

Therefore, the young athlete visualised himself swimming and then winning his Olympic race, and practiced this visualisation day after day after day.

During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, after years of vigorous mental and physical training; Michael Phelps, when diving into the water realised that his swimming goggles were slowly filling with water. It was impossible for him to stop and put them back on, because that would cost him the race, his only solution was to keep on swimming even if he couldn’t see a thing.

What his trainer, Bob Bowman didn’t know, was that Michael was fed up with visualising the perfect race every single day, so he decided to start to visualise the worst possible contingencies that could happen, such as a problem with his goggles. Therefore he instinctively knew how to react and the exact number of strokes he had to swim. Result; a world record and an Olympic gold medal. If Michael hadn’t gotten bored with positive visualisation; the result wouldn’t have been the same.

Bob Bowman considers the brain as a computer processing data. On one side, we give the brain data on the objectives to be reached, and on the other side, data on all the different scenarios possible to reach those goals. This will allow the brain to know exactly what to do in any given situation as the information is already stored in the brain’s database.

So, it seems that imaging the worst possible scenario could be helpful.

(Little self-promo pause; if you find this post interesting, you’ll find other similar articles on my blog! Now, back to the article.)

New experiments in neuroscience have started to prove that only thinking positively isn’t as beneficial as we think. This concept called “mental constrasting”, discovered by psychology Professor Gabriele Oettingen explains that visualising both the worst and best possible situations could be useful to us and help us prepare for events.

Positive visualisation consists of imagining with the most cognitive and emotional details and with the most piercing senses our dreams as accomplished. Gabriele Oettingen’s research has shown that this type of visualisation helps to relax and calm down, but they do not give us the motivation to act on our dreams. In fact, positive visualisation tricks the brain into thinking that the desire is already accomplished which does not stimulate the brain to activate the necessary resources to generate the action. However, she doesn’t say that positive visualisation is useless. She says that positive visualisation is important, because otherwise we would only visualise the obstacles and the positive end would be missing in the equation. What works is the combination of both types of visualisation! She created the WOOP method, which corresponds to Wish, Outcome, Obstacles, Plan.


How does it work?

WISH: Define your global objective; for example, lose weight (have you also gained weight during self-isolation?)

OUTCOME: What concrete result do you want to see: lose 3 kilos before the beginning of summer.

Visualise the results you wish for, as reached (like Michael Phelps) however it must be precise visualisation – remember to use all of your senses. In our previous example (losing weight), imagine yourself being lighter, your clothes looking and feeling baggy on you, your energy being boosted, you love the reflection you see in the mirror.

OBSTACLES: Visualise the main obstacles you will have to ace. For example, when losing weight you could imagine being tempted when you walk past a bakery or in a restaurant.

PLAN: What will you do to overcome these obstacles? The idea could be to change your morning walk as to no longer walk past the bakery or to always have a fruit or some nuts (something healthy) in your bag as to not give in. At the restaurant, you could decide to order salad automatically instead of ordering fries.

You get the idea…

A fun way to stay concentrated on your objective is to create an action chart. This chart is different from the visualisation chart as the visualisation chart’s job is to help you clarify your goals and inspire you. While the action chart will also list all the specific actions you have to accomplish as to reach your goal. Try creating a list of actions you must accomplish every day, week and month as to be able to reach your goal.

What does science say about all of this?

Well, looking at your action chart on the daily enables your subconscious to “save” the images and it helps your brain seize all the opportunities which have to do with the images, opportunities you would otherwise have passed by. Adding concrete actions to your chart (no matter how small) is the magic formula to reaching your objectives (and it seems that those who write down their objectives have an 80% higher chance of reaching them, so why don’t you write them down in the comments below?)

So, when will you start?

Translated by Clara Rapin–Limoges

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