Fantasizing about a goal can help you achieve it, but only if you do it right. That’s the finding from a report in the latest issue of the journal Health Psychology. The research, performed by Paschal Sheeran, Peter Harris, Jennifer Vaughan, Gabriele Oettingen and Peter Gollwitzer, draws on previous findings from Oettingen about different types of fantasizing, and which are the most helpful. Oettingen differentiates between three types of goal-related fantasies. In one, the dreamer merely enjoys the pleasure of an imagined future. The flip-side of this is to dwell on the shortcomings of one’s current situation. The third type is simply the combination: a contrasting of the positive parts of the fantasy and the negative parts of the reality.
Oettingen has found in previous research that the contrast is effective, while only using one half (positive imagined future or negative reality) does little to change one’s behavior or motivate someone to advance their goals.
The experiment done by Sheeran et. al. sought to test this idea. To do so, they gave a survey on physical activity to 467 members of an angling club in north England. The experiment targeted middle-aged, overweight men in the lower to middle class. Embedded in the questionnaire, some respondents were asked to contrast their current level of physical activity with what they would like it to be. The experimenters checked in one month and seven months later. They found that people who had the contrasting fantasy question had increased their physical activity over and above the others who didn’t get that question.
While much of scientific research sounds potentially significant but incredibly obscure for most of us, this is one that you can put into effect right now. Think of a current goal you have, then close your eyes and imagine how good it would feel to achieve that goal, contrasting that with the reality you live in right now. You don’t have to dislike your present situation, but if you have even one goal, that means you want something to change.
Give it a try and let me know how it goes. You don’t often get a good excuse to fantasize.