This week we’re looking at the all-too-easy but often overlooked technique of visualization, and this post is ending up very different than the step-by-step to happy visualization that I was expecting to write. One of the best elements of writing this blog is doing the background research to support what I already believe to be true. I was planning to put a little blurb in here about how elite athletes use visualization to demonstrate that it’s both effective and worthwhile. However, a quick google search resulted in a whole series of fantastic claims from self-help sites, and a claim that visualization was counterproductive from a Forbes columnist. Of course I had to go read the Forbes article, “Visualize Success If You Want To Fail.” You might find this quote from David DiSalvo’s article as fascinating as I do:
“Enter the latest round of research aimed at testing the mettle of self-help platitudes. Researchers Heather Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen, publishing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, suggest to us that not only is positive visualization ineffective, it’s counterproductive. A practice proffered to help us succeed may do just the opposite.
During the course of four experiments, Kappes and Oettingen demonstrated that conjuring positive fantasies of success drains the energy out of ambition. When we imagine having reached what we want, our brains fall for the trick. Instead of mustering more energy to get “there,” we inadvertently trigger a relaxation response that mimics how we would feel if we’d actually reached the goal. Physiologically, we slide into our comfort shoes; blood pressure lowers, heart rate decreases, all is well in the success world of our mind’s making.”
(DiSalvo, D. (2011, June 8). Visualize Success If You Want To Fail. Forbes.com. Retrieved January 11, 2014 from http://www.forbes.com)
This brings up so many things for me. In no particular order:
Yes! There’s proof that beginning at the end works!!!
Woot! I’ve believed this for years, but it is always exciting to have it confirmed through experiment. The idea behind the “Beginning at the End” technique is that we’re really searching for feeling states, and that we can have the feeling state right now by imagining that we’ve achieved whatever dream we think will bring us to that feeling state.
For example, say you want to win the lottery and quit your job. The ‘Beginning at the End’ tool would see what kind of feeling you really want from winning the lottery – freedom, safety, adventure – and then, by imagining that it’s happened, you get to experience those very feelings right now. Which leads to…
What is the point of success? Why are we trying to achieve goals?
When I read this quote (and I would recommend checking out the whole article), I felt sad. How many of us run after goals, achieve them and never stop to savor the relaxation response? Why do we feel like we have to achieve some specific thing before allowing our blood pressure to lower and our heart rates to drop? Which leads to…
Why do we assume that achievement has to come from striving and hard work? What do we have against rest and ease? When did the relaxation response become equated with failure?
I’m starting to feel a little bit afraid as I type this, like I might be zapped by a red-white-and-blue lightning bolt at any given moment…maybe we don’t have to work quite so hard? Maybe being in a perpetual state of elevated stress (fight or flight response) in order to achieve arbitrary goals is not all that good for us?
“Then plough deep, while sluggards sleep, and you shall have corn to sell and to keep.”
– Benjamin Franklin
Maybe it’s time for us to release the terror of being considered a sluggard and having no corn.
“The heights by great men reached and kept,
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.”
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Maybe we can stop toiling upward while other people are sleeping. Maybe we can sleep too!
“Labor disgraces no man; unfortunately, you occasionally find men who disgrace labor.“
-Ulysses S. Grant
We have so many judgmental quotes about working hard and not sleeping from historical (and current) American icons that it feels almost unpatriotic to suggest that working hard is not always the best idea.
The study the Forbes article referenced went on to say that the positive visualizers achieved fewer goals than other study participants during the study period. But how do we know that the goals for any of the participants were well thought out? Is it possible that the visualizers, once they achieved the relaxation response, realized that they didn’t need to achieve some outward sign of ‘success?’
I could easily rant on about this for quite some time, but I’ll wrap up (because I want to sleep!) and leave you with these questions:
- What does success mean to you and how will you know you’ve achieved it?
- Have you ever achieved something through rest and ease instead of sweat and toil?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.