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’.
In a society with increasing economic, social, and mental stress leading to increasing rates of suicide, the insistence that we “think positive” asks us to ignore the reality we live in.
Living with debilitating chronic pain in addition to this general malaise makes the silly directive to “think positive” a cruel mockery.
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.
“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
Naturally, then, it’s expectations that precede success. “…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).