Instead of Positive Thinking, Try Positive Action

By Amy Taylor on July 02, 2012

Psychology students are taught about the law of attraction. What you think is what you are, what you imagine, you will get. Visualising yourself as a successful businessman who’s counting millions while sipping expensive champagne is one big factor that makes you become who you wanted to be. But that’s not actually the case in real life, some experts believe. Instead of thinking positively, they suggest taking positive action.

In a study led by Lien Pham from the University of California, a group of students were asked to spend a few moments every day visualising themselves getting a high score in an upcoming school exam. Surprisingly, instead of feeling motivated, the students tend to study less and end up getting low scores. In another experiment by Gabriele Oettingen from New York University, graduates were asked how often do they visualise themselves in living their dream careers. He found that those who fantasised more of their success ended up getting the wrong job and receiving small salaries.

What’s wrong with these people?

One possible reason is that those who thought too much about their goals were ill-prepared for the challenges that come their way. On the other hand, some tend to put a little effort to reach their goals.

Decades of research suggest an effective yet simple way to transform what you think and feel. William James, a 19th century thinker and scientist from the Harvard University studied the relationship between behaviour and emotion. According to James, our everyday experience tells us that our emotions cause us to behave in certain ways. For instance, feeling happy makes a person smile, feeling sad makes one frown, and so on. But for him, this does not end there.

His theory was that emotion and behaviour was a two-way street. For him, behaviour can cause emotion. Thus, smiling can make you feel happy and frowning can make you feel sad. Just like his famous line - "You do not run from a bear because you are afraid of it, but rather become afraid of the bear because you run from it.” His unconventional thinking was published in his book ‘The Principles of Psychology’ which until now, is being used.

Behaviour precedes emotion

James’ idea was greatly in conflict with the conventional belief that thinking precedes emotion. For many years, self-help gurus advised the public to change the way they think rather than how they behave.

But another scientist from the Clark University in the name of James Laird tried to investigate whether James’ theory was right by conducting an experiment. A group of volunteers were asked to create some facial expressions which show happiness, anger, or sadness. For instance, to create an angry impression, participants were asked to clench their teeth and draw down their eyebrow. And just like what James has taught, participants felt happier when they forced their faces to smile rather than clenching their teeth.

Many studies have followed and proven the idea that behaviour precedes emotion. By trying to become a certain type of person, you subsequently become that person.

Same thing is true with some other values that affect our wellbeing – willpower and confidence. Instead of visualising yourself as a person who has strong willpower or instead of looking back to the times where you have done well, experts suggest we simply need to change our behaviour. James’s theory which was originally believed as radical became applicable to almost every aspect of life, and can be used to help others become happier, feel less stressed and anxious, live healthy, and reach their goals.

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