Embracing a negative side can effect positive change

New York University Professor of Psychology Gabriele Oettingen has spent the last few years of her life dedicated to studying the power or lack thereof of positive thinking. She claims that thinking about your goals with the mindset that achievement of them is inevitable and within reach often leads to a failure to meet said goals. Instead, Oettingen suggests implementing a technique known as “mental contrasting,” or, in layman’s terms, looking at the positive and negative sides of a situation.

I have a lot of hope for Oettingen’s pessimism advocacy. It is certainly a useful, implementable tool that I am confident is guaranteed to create positive change in individual lives.

Irony aside, I think Oettingen does have a point. An important thing to note, though – and something I think a lot of people gloss over – is that the professor is not saying that people should be a 100 percent downer, glass-half-empty, “it’ll never happen” type. That will just lead to lethargy and depression, a combination that does not often result in any sort of productivity.

So go ahead and daydream about that thing you want, whether it be getting good grades, making new friends or becoming a professional circus clown. But don’t stop there. When you just imagine having what you want, your brain starts to trick itself into thinking it already has it, thus is less motivated to achieve it and is less prepared to deal with any obstacles that may arise. This is what you should do instead: first, think about what you are hoping to get by attaining your goals. Is it the benefits of a quality education? The satisfaction of the companionship of a large social circle? The joy of making an audience laugh at your silly antics while wearing ridiculous makeup and tacky clothing? Whatever your motivation is, find it and identify it.

Secondly, imagine anything that could get in the way of your goal. However, don’t focus as much on the external forces working against you, things such as the circus becoming an increasingly lost art form in this nation. Instead, focus on the internal factors: how are you holding yourself back? Maybe you get distracted by Facebook or Netflix. Maybe you shut yourself away in your room too often. Maybe traumatic memories give you a general distrust for the circus folk. Really delve deep with this one.

Finally – and this is the important part – take all those obstacles you thought of and plan what you will do when they come up. You could leave your phone and computer in your room, and then go study in a secluded corner of Rolvaag. You could get involved in more fun activities in order to meet new people. Or you could head on down to Boe House to work out your deep-seated psychological issues that give you the heebie-jeebies about the circus.

These tips are really useful because they do not advocate being a so-called Negative Nancy, as is often assumed about practical thinking. Think of the mental contrasting process as more of a preemptive problem-solving session. Fix the potential problems before they occur.

So maybe Monty Python was wrong when it suggested that you should “always look on the bright side of life.” Nonetheless, go out and achieve your dreams, and on your way, tap into your negative side. Not too much, though. The road to success may be difficult, but always remember: I believe in you. Especially if you want to be a circus clown. Seriously, there’s not enough of those anymore.

Chaz Mayo ’18 mayo1@stolaf.edu is from Rice Lake, Wis. He majors in theater.