Are you making progress? Or are you just dreaming about a better future and wasting your time? Photo iStock
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Is an officer more likely to get promoted if she visualizes herself as a highly regarded patrol sergeant? Is a recruit more likely to qualify on the range if he visualizes getting the Academy’s highest score? Is an officer more likely to survive the emotional stressors of policing if he visualizes himself as happy and serene?
The Self-Help Movement’s Answer
If you listen to the ubiquitous self-help movement the answer to these questions is a resounding, “Yes!” Self-anointed self-help gurus call it the “law of attraction.” The law of attraction posits that you can attract anything you visualize consistently. It is often “preached” in the context of attracting material wealth and success as indicated in some of the well-known books on the subject like:
- The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace D. Wattles
- Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill
But many self-help gurus insist that visualizing what you want to have or be in life can attract not just wealth but also health and happiness. This notion was widely popularized in 2006 in a movie entitled The Secret and a 2007 book by the same name. The movie drummed up the attention of mass media from Oprah to Larry King.
In August 2008, Esther and Jerry Hicks's book Money and the Law of Attraction: Learning to Attract Health, Wealth & Happiness appeared on the New York Times Best Seller list. Workshops that teach you how to just say “Yes to Success” or “Ask, Believe, and Receive” abound.
There are a couple of problems with the law of attraction. First, it’s not a law. There is no science to support the proposition that visualizing success or anything else will somehow metaphysically attract it. Reports are purely anecdotal, subjective and self-selecting (those who preach this point to their own success, which, ironically, comes from getting “losers” to buy their book or workshop).
There’s also a flip side to the law of attraction that the self-help gurus prefer to dodge. Do innocent civilians killed in Afghanistan mentally attract their bad ends? How about cancer patients (that have not engaged in high risk behavior), the passengers of an airliner that crashes or patrons in a café randomly gunned down by Mexican drug cartel members?
Another problem is there is now scientific evidence that saying “yes to success” can actually lead us to failure. In truth, the more you visualize having accomplished a goal – the more you see, hear, smell, taste and touch it in your mind -- the less likely you are to achieve it. Such mental make believe actually lulls you into a sugar, sated, fairyland of happy sloth.
The Scientific Answer
Psychologists Heather Barry Kappes and Gabrielle Oettingen conducted experiments using the scientific method and discovered the more you fantasize about having successfully achieved a goal or task, the less likely you are to put in the requisite work and effort. That’s because visualizing the successful outcome carries its own happiness and satisfaction, neither of which spark energy and effort.
I can so relate to that. Since I was nine years old I’ve wanted to be a renowned and celebrated author. In the decades since, I’ve endlessly fantasized about being on the New York Times best seller list, being nominated for a National Book Award, being a guest on Oprah. They are detailed visualizations. I love the feeling they produce -- a high not unlike that brought on by slowly savoring an exceptional slice of cheese cake.
What these fantasies don’t do is put my butt in the chair. They don’t depict me with eye strain, brain strain, or stoop shouldered and stiff limbed as I stand up from my computer to stretch. They don’t make me, like Carolyn See in Making a Literary Life, resolutely pledge to write a thousand words a day, five days a week, for the rest of my life, and then visualize that.
My visualizations of success flush me with pleasure. But they don’t energize me. And there’s the rub.
According to research that Kappes and Oettingen built on, energy plays a key role in getting people to pursue and achieve desired outcomes. Kappes and Oettingen took that established idea further and determined that visualizations in which people mentally consummate a desired future, often through idealized paths, produces relaxation that accompanies actual achievement, rather than the effort that necessarily precedes it. Positive visualizations allow us to mentally experience a desired future in the present, thereby yielding low energy to pursue it in reality.
Kappes’ and Oettingen’s experiments further showed that positive visualizations about success in an endeavor resulted in lower energy and effort than neutral, questioning or negative visualizations (for example, college students who visualized a writing contest and questioned whether they would win).
Moreover, the more important and desired the successful outcome is, the more de-energizing winning visualizations are. Just as more effort is mustered in the pursuit of especially desirable outcomes.
Tailor & Turbo-Charge Your Visualization
If you’re looking for relaxation or wish to counteract anxiety or stress -- and officers often are and should -- positive outcome visualizations can be beneficial.