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Positive fantasies hurt real-world success

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

I love it when an ironclad rule of pop psychology gets, well, popped. As in it's wrong. When real researchers conduct experiments using the scientific method, they often find that what we took for the truth was 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 to achieve it. But researchers say this isn't what happens at all. In fact, the more you fantasize about having achieved a goal, the less likely you will achieve it. 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 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 achieving the goal? 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 among us that instead would fantasize about waking up before the sun rises to run in the cold or 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.

The best form of fantasy if you want to increase your chances of reaching your goals 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.

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