Dreaming about positive events in the future makes you feel better now, but may make you feel worse later on, new research finds.
The more positively people fantasised about the future, the more depressive symptoms people experienced up to seven months later, the study found.
The findings kick against the ubiquitous self-help advice to ‘think positive’.
Professor Gabriele Oettingen, who led the research ,said:
“Our findings suggest that as pleasurable and helpful as positive fantasies are for depressive mood in the moment, they can be problematic and cumbersome over time.”
The reason for the dangerous effect of positive fantasies may be down to lack of effort.
People who fantasise about the future tend to put less effort in when tomorrow becomes today.
As I’ve written previously in Success! Why Expectations Beat Fantasies:
“The problem with positive fantasies is that they allow us to anticipate success in the here and now.
However they don’t alert us to the problems we are likely to face along the way and can leave us with less motivation—after all it feels like we’ve already reached our goal.”
It’s expectations that matter more than fantasies, as I wrote in the same article:
“You expect to do well in an exam because you’ve done well in previous exams, you expect to meet another partner because you managed to meet your last partner, and so on.”
Naturally, then, it’s expectations that precede success, as the previous study found:
“…positive expectations were associated with success.
People who had positive expectations about finding a partner, recovering quickly from surgery and passing an exam, did better than those whose expectations were negative.”
The new study’s authors write:
“The modern era is marked by a push for ever-positive thinking, and the self-help market fueled by a reliance on such positive thinking is a 9.6 billion industry that continues to grow.
Our findings raise questions of how costly this market may be for people’s long-term well-being and for society as a whole.”
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science (Oettingen et al., 2016).
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Image credit: Corie Howell