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Positive Thinking (Without the Right Parameters!) Can Actually Make You Depressed


You're feeling a little down about your day job, or maybe you're bored on your morning commute, so you start daydreaming about happier thoughts like being your own boss or running a Fortune 500 company. Sound familiar? We're all guilty of indulging in a few fantasies about our future from time to time but letting our mind run a little wild might not be so harmless in the long run, according to new research published in the journal Psychological Science. (Who's healthier: optimists or pessimists?)

The study authors found that while indulging in positive fantasies can help boost your mood in the moment, it might actually leave you feeling more depressed in the long-term. It's important to note that positive fantasies and positive thoughts are not the same thing—for the purposes of this study, we're talking about fantasies that aren't really grounded in reality or any actionable steps. Think: dreaming about being Beyoncé's backup dancer one day when you've never actually taken a dance class.

In a series of four studies, the researchers had participants fantasize about some aspect of the future. Across the board, the more positively the participants fantasized, the fewer depressive symptoms they showed at the time—but the more depressive symptoms they showed at a follow-up session. (Does Positive Thinking Really Work?)

Now, calm down—this doesn't mean we should stop thinking positively about our futures. But we should be aware of the way we fantasize, according to the study authors. "These positive fantasies relax us and de-energize us," says Gabriele Oettingen, Ph.D., lead author on the study and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking. "We feel accomplished in the fantasized-about future, so we don't actually put in the work needed to achieve that future."

The trick is to think about how we can use fantasy to actually make those dreams come to fruition. To help us do this, the authors created WOOP (which stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan), a tool we can use to reframe our fantasies. "We combat the positive fantasies with a clear sense of reality and then put a clear plan onto the obstacles of that reality," says Oettingen.

So rather than end up depressed because the closest you ever got to Beyoncé's stage was in the audience of her concert, you actually start taking those dance classes. Here's to making your fantasies a reality! (Get started: 25 Experts Reveal the Best Advice to Achieve Any Goal.)


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