A common theme among self-help teachings and new age spiritual ideas, such as "The Secret," is that you have the power within you to make your "dreams" come true by focusing your mental energy, your "intent," on them. Then, they will come to you. But some new research claims that doing so can actually make you less likely to achieve what you wish for.
The research says that fantasizing about achieving goals makes you less likely to achieve them because it drains the energy you need to pursue them. I think the research is as flawed and distorted as "The Secret" and similar teachings, but for very different reasons. Let's take a look.
This study, from New York University's Motivation Lab, found that "positive fantasies" predict poor achievement because they don't generate the energy to pursue the desired future. That is, if you create idealized images of future outcomes, your fantasized ambitions are less likely to become reality. That's because positive fantasies are de-energizing.
The research contains so many confused ideas and faulty assumptions that it's hard to know where to begin. But it does, indirectly, open a door to understanding some important elements for turning your goals into reality.
Ironically, the popular idea it's based on -- that visualizing your goals with enough "intent" will make them happen -- is itself a twisted and misunderstood version of an ancient spiritual perspective. But this new research also confuses a "positive fantasy" with visualizing a goal or objective. They are different. And the research also misunderstands what you need to turn a vision into a reality.
The research was done using college students (that's typical, for academic research, which is then extrapolated to people of all life stages and all post-21 experiences, but that's another story). Researchers examined the effect of experimentally induced "positive fantasies" about the future in four different studies.
- Women were asked to fantasize positively about looking and feeling good in high-heeled shoes (I know -- I'm not even going to try commenting on the merits of that "Mad Men"-era "positive fantasy").
- Some participants were asked to fantasize positively about winning an essay contest.
- And some were asked to describe a positive outcome for the week ahead, including imagining getting "A" grades, or being sought after by a desirable sexual partner.
The researchers decided to induce these "positive fantasies" because they assumed that those are the most desirable things one would want to achieve. Note that they're actually acquisitions, or accolades for looking good, or getting recognition for oneself. I don't see any "positive fantasies" such as, say, creating a new, useful iPhone app or having created a service to feed malnourished children. But more about that later.
The researchers measured the effect of positive fantasies upon systolic blood pressure. They had decided that would be a good measure of "low energy," that "low energy" would indicate that positive fantasies translate into poor achievement.
That is, the assumption was that people's "energy," defined by this measure, decreased as the participants engaged in positive fantasies, compared with another group who looked upon the fantasies with more skepticism. The latter group included women who were asked to fantasize more critically about the pros and cons of wearing trendy, high-heeled shoes, people who were asked to fantasize more negatively about their prospects for winning the essay contest and those who were asked to just daydream about the coming week rather than fantasize about a hot date or getting "As."
In short, researchers concluded that positive fantasies result in less energy than fantasies that question the desired future. That is, that positive fantasies will drain the energy you need for doing the work that will make them achievable.
What you can draw from this study is grossly misleading, at best. And that applies to its definition of desirable goals -- what it means by a "positive fantasy" and its assumption about what really helps achieve your goals or objectives. But through its flaws it illuminates some important things that are helpful to know about how you can, in fact, increase the possibility of achieving a desired dream.
Fantasizing vs. Envisioning -- There's a big difference. A fantasy is more like a wish or ungrounded notion of something you hope for or idealize acquiring. It's usually thought of in terms of the end result. That's closer to a daydream, and, interestingly, the researchers instructed people in a control group to just daydream about anything at all rather than, for example, getting all "As."
Creating a vision, however, is a more specific and developed formulation. It's more of a picture of something that you can envision pulling you toward, like from a magnet or rubber band. You experience it as a process, steps along the way that you move through, in order to turn it into reality. A fantasy is likely to just linger, hover in the air and go nowhere. You work at a vision, because it pulls you along a path -- from its beginnings in a thought, a wish (or fantasy), toward more fleshing out of what it could look like, toward steps that require your mental, creative, emotional and strategic powers to bring it into fruition.
What Goals Are Desirable Ones? -- The goals in this study were all self-serving, self-centered ones -- "getting" for oneself to consume or to glorify the ego. Such goals are, in fact, less likely to generate positive outcome, whether in personal life or at work. The most creative, positive accomplishments and achievements result from leaning to "forget yourself," in the sense of putting your energies into something larger than just your own ego-gratification. I've described this in some previous posts about what supports finding a fulfilling life purpose, and what enables people to evolve in healthy, productive ways in their lifetime.
Examples of the contrast between purely ego-related, self-absorbed goals and a larger vision would include the difference between a goal to create a great new product or service, rather than trying to capture a big market share from the product. Or building a solid, mutually loving relationship with a partner, rather than wanting to "have" a girlfriend or boyfriend to show off or have readily-available sex with. Too much self-interest tends to undermine success in life. That's been observed in the business world by looking at the goals of those who proved to be most successful: They achieved business and career goals by pursuing them indirectly, by deliberately not pursuing them. In relationships, the same principle is visible among those whose aims are not so much to "acquire" a new partner, but who wants to experience pleasure and enjoyment in relationships, and then find that one may grow and develop over time.
What Does It Take To Get There? -- The assumption that lower systolic blood pressure means you don't have enough "energy" to achieve your goals is very mixed-up thinking. It confuses lower motivation associated with residing in a wish-fulfilling, ego-serving fantasy -- and which may correlate with lower blood pressure -- with the ingredients for energizing the cognitive and emotional capacities you need for achieving a goal or objective that you've visualized, not just fantasized about.
That is, an internal state of calm -- associated with lower blood pressure -- can underlie both wishful thinking and having a clear focus on and determination to achieve your visualized goal or objective. Much research supports this. For example, a large number of studies of the impact of meditation upon the brain and behavior show that internal calm, centeredness, focusing and mindful attention enhance both your cognitive powers and the strategic actions you need to undertake to bring your vision into reality.
The upshot: Know the difference between idealized fantasies that go nowhere and a vision of possibility that activates your powers and your actions. Pursue goals that have worthwhile impact on something more than just your own narrow self-interest. And realize that internal focus, mindfulness and physiological calm activate the right kind of energy for making your vision possible. And that's no "Secret."
Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org.