The pleasurable act of dreaming seems to let us fulfill our wishes in our minds, sapping our energy to perform the hard work of meeting the challenges in real life.
Anyone who’s seen the self-help section of a bookstore knows. Titles emphasizing positive thinking, goal-setting, and visualizing your ideal life saturate the shelves. Most of them sport well-dressed figureheads flashing pearly whites, telling us that the universe will manifest the thoughts we choose to entertain. Wish it. Want it. Do it.
The psychological phenomenon of self-fulfilling prophesies seem to support this. For example, suppose a socially anxious person (let’s call him Liam) attends a party.
“I don’t want to go,” Liam thinks. “I’m awkward. People don’t like me.”
These thoughts bellow and stoke the fires of Liam’s anxiety. He fidgets, stands in a corner, nurses a drink (or six), and shyly averts others’ eye contact. No one approaches him and starts a conversation. Liam goes home.
“See, I told you people don’t like me.”
It’s true – the self-narrative we internalize (e.g. I’m awkward) reflects in our behavior (social awkwardness) which in turn reinforces the narrative. The cycle is strong and it can be vicious.
But do self-fulfilling prophecies apply to positive fantasies? Does daydreaming about our ideal life help us achieve those goals in the future?
It’s not a black-and-white question. Positive fantasizing can open our mind to what is possible. For example, if we’ve never imagined ourselves as a U.S. senator, or if we found that daydream unpleasant, then the likelihood of pursuing a political career becomes zero. We are not wired to chase unpleasantness. It’s akin to your odds of winning a lottery without buying a ticket. We cannot achieve an unknown or aversive goal.
But it’s also possible to overdose on positive visualization. Fantasizing about the future can be very enjoyable – sometimes too enjoyable. In fact, some MRI research suggests that goal achievement and the thought of goal achievement produce comparable brain states.
Generally speaking, the neurotransmitter dopamine fuels motivation. Some associate dopamine with pleasure. However, dopamine instead links to the anticipation of pleasure.
If we spend too much time imagining our ideal future, we may overdose on dopamine “want sauce”, and satisfy our drive to achieve. Human beings aim to use resources efficiently. Why bother to work towards financial freedom, a dream job, a dream body, or a dream relationship if simply imagining them produces the same feelings?
In addition to dopamine overdoses, excessive daydreaming could blind us to the potential obstacles and setbacks that litter the road to success. When we focus too distantly and deeply on end results, slow progress and roadblocks demotivate us into passivity.
This is why Oettingen’s prescription couples fantasy with planning. In her WOOP framework, one starts with a wish and ideal outcome (“I will get an A on my psychology final exam”). Then, one steps back and considers the obstacles to success (“My friend invited me to a party on the weekend before exams”). Finally, one can find motivation and self-efficacy in the face of obstacles by planning (“If I review my notes for two hours before the party, then I can attend. If I want to drink, I will choose light beer. I will drink three beers. The next day, I will resume studying my flashcards at 11:00 a.m.”). When we take time to consider obstacles, we can strategize against them.
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing inherently wrong with daydreaming about an ideal future. When we think about achieving our goals, it presupposes that we have goals. The opposite of this is hopelessness – a state I would not wish upon anybody. Moreover, keeping a picture of our dream home (or a $10 million check if you’re Jim Carrey) can reinforce our motivation as we wade through the daily grind.
However, we run into trouble when we stop here. It can be easy to bathe in a dopamine spa of anticipation. Affirmations, motivational talks, and Tony Robbins’ audiobooks leave us feeling energized and ready to take on the world. But action and a desire for action are not the same things.
Dreaming is quick, convenient, and addictive. Action can be slow, cumbersome, and frustrating. However, one hour of genuine and fulfilling work (even if it isn’t fruitful) is worth 10,000 years of perfect aspirations.