A client asked me this recently. She was fairly dismissive of what she called the “junk science” of staying cheery and optimistic in the face of serious problems.

mentalcontrasting “I prefer to be realistic about what I can and can’t do, “ she told me. “I don’t want to work on finding a bright side for everything. I don’t want to forecast a rosy future for myself when I am in pain and struggle every day.”

She’s not all wrong.

There are some “real” benefits to a positive outlook, but recent research suggests that it works best when we mix in some attention to obstacles and challenges.

I saw that lived out in a client I’ll call Jean. Jean has a beautiful imagination, and it wasn’t unusual for her to bring in several scenarios where she was living her dream. She could see herself a few years in the future with an ideal job, making more money than she was currently, and living in a better apartment. She could focus quite easily on this positive picture, and it made her happy.

That happiness calmed her anxiety about the present, and was probably good for her nervous system in a number of ways.

But the present contentment with her dream drained her motivation to tackle the steps, which were not all easy or pleasant, to get her to her desired future. She was positive, but didn’t move forward in her life, and so her dreams didn’t become reality.

Another client, Jim, worked on this differently. Jim lived with chronic pain in his hips, which often spread to his back and legs. His daughter was getting married, and he wanted to walk her down the aisle. He dreamed of dancing the first dance and maybe even getting on the dance floor with his husband. He could visualize this, and it was a happy picture, but then he would think about the reality of how he was moving around in his daily life.

I encouraged him not to lose the picture of the aisle and the dance floor, but to also imagine what might get in the way of his vision.

He ticked several things off for me:

-not moving enough now, so he couldn’t calculate what caused pain and what didn’t

-not using enough medication

being unwilling to practice walking and staying immobile

Together we began to look at how he could stay motivated to practice walking, even on days that were difficult, and what he could do to figure out the balance of just enough exercise. He worked with his rheumatologist to adjust his medications, especially for that day.

By the wedding, Jim was prepared and his positive picture came to life. It was a beautiful happy celebration for all of the family.
What Jim, and many of my clients practiced is termed “mental contrasting.” A recent article in the New York Times by Gabriele Oettingen describes this process, and the research she and her team have conducted. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/26/opinion/sunday/the-problem-with-positive-thinking.html?_r=0

When we want to stay positive, and motivated and energized to achieve our dream, focusing on the optimistic dream is part of the equation. But in order for something to change, we also need to think about what might get in our way. Where are the obstacles that we must overcome? What beliefs or habits have to change? How will we stop ourselves?

When we contrast those with the power of the dream, we can be realistically optimistic about both the work ahead and the payoff of our vision.

So what about my client Jean?

We talked about some dreams she had that were, in her mind, somewhat realistic. I encouraged her to find some happiness and possibility when she imagined taking an online course and becoming certified to do some counseling. We discussed how her pain and fatigue might derail her, that “mental contrasting” of the difficulties, and she chose to take a lighter load, and let her professor know she sometimes had limitations, but she persevered.

In a world that often feels full of “No’s”, Jean was able to find a Yes that kept her awake to possibilities.

In a culture that encourages us to be positive, add in some contrast as you visualize. It will either encourage you to let some dreams go, or fire up your problem solving motivation!

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