Positive fantasies hurt real-world success

Be careful what you wish for. New research shows that if you dream of a better life for yourself, the more you fantasize about it, the less likely you are to actually achieve it.

I love it when an ironclad rule of pop psychology gets, well, popped. As in it gets proven wrong. When real researchers conduct experiments using the scientific method, they often find that what we've taken for the truth is actually dead wrong. Psychologists Heather Barry Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen recently published "Positive Fantasies About Idealized Futures Sap Energy" in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Their conclusion? The more you visualize having accomplished a wonderful goal, the less likely you are to achieve it. Pop!

Self-help books and goal-setting websites are flush with advice that the best way to achieve a desired future is to first imagine it. Have a compelling goal? Visualize yourself having achieved it. See, touch and taste your success in this idealized future, and you will be more likely to do what it takes succeed. But researchers say this isn't what happens at all. In fact, the more you fantasize about having reached a goal, the less likely you are to do so. But how is this possible?

The problem is that you get an immediate benefit from this fantasy that you've created. You do such a good job visualizing it that it really feels as if you've achieved it. You get the bang without needing the buck. When you come back to reality, in order to accomplish your goal, you have to put forth a lot of work, time and energy, but for what? To experience they joy of success? Forget that -- you've already experienced the joy and you didn't have to do anything for it.

So what's going on behind the scenes? According to Kappes and Oettingen, energy plays a key role in allowing us to pursue and achieve our desired futures. When we are in fantasy land, we aren't visualizing the work involved. Think about it: What's your weight loss fantasy? Do you see yourself looking great in a swimsuit? Maybe having friends gush over how slim you look? Or possibly having someone flirt with you? These make sense. There probably aren't too many of us that would rather fantasize about waking up before the sun rises to run in the cold or about the ache in our stomach from having cut out 25 percent of our calories.

"Positive fantasies allow people to mentally experience a desired future in the here and now, and such fantasies may deter people from mobilizing the energy that is needed to bring about their desired future," the researchers report.

Should you always avoid positive fantasies? No. If you don't want to achieve a goal, but simply want to feel good -- a feeling of relaxation or contentment -- then positive fantasies work quite well. They provide a sense of satisfaction and euphoria that can temporarily elevate your mood.

If you want to increase your chances of reaching your goals, the best form of fantasy is a less idealized or less painless fantasy. Researchers suggest fantasies that are less positive. "Fantasies that question whether an ideal future can be achieved, and that depict obstacles, problems and setbacks should be more beneficial for mustering the energy to attain actual success," the psychologists write.

In other words, to increase your chances of reaching your goals, fantasize more about the effort and less about the results. You may not get the temporary "high" from your fantasies, but you'll accomplish a lot more.

(Robert Pagliarini is a CBS MoneyWatch columnist and the author of "The Other 8 Hours: Maximize Your Free Time to Create New Wealth & Purpose" and the national best-seller "The Six Day Financial Makeover." Visit YourOther8Hours.com.)

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