When is visualization helpful, and when does it get in the way of reaching a goal?

Fantasy, a kind of visualization, is a chance to embrace a magical reality. It can be a wonderful experience—it can feel good—to lose ourselves in an alternate reality, when we can pretend that life is as we want it to be, maybe with a better job, fabulous success in your chosen field, better health, etc.

There’s only one problem with any fantasy: it doesn’t exist.

In 2002, a study evaluated four groups of people with goals, who either visualized what success looks and feels like, or anticipated a negative outcome. These groups’ four different goals were finding a job, looking for a romantic partner, acing an exam, or recovering well from surgery.

The study authors concluded that fantasy visualization leads people to feel as though they have already succeeded, while anticipating a negative outcome helps people to identify and deal with the obstacles or challenges they foresee. In other words, the pleasant feelings a fantasy evokes end up negatively affecting our motivation to pursue success—getting out there and applying for jobs, studying harder for exams, etc.

Another group of people expected good results based on their own past experience, and they also had a better outcome than the people who fantasized about success—presumably at least partly because they already knew the steps they would need to take to ensure success.

Fast forward to this year, and another study builds on the earlier research, this time focusing on the effect of positive thinking on depression. In this case, the study looked at the effect of positive visualization both in the moment and over time. What they found is that people did in fact feel better in the moment, as they experienced the positive feelings evoked by the fantasy, but the long-term effect (up to 7 months later) was an increase in depressive symptoms. The long-term reality did not live up to the fantasy, which remained just a fantasy. In this study, visualization of positive results not only didn’t provide a benefit, but over time it led to more depression.

So, positive thinking or visualizing success may not be an effective force for change in our lives.

In hypnosis, we typically use visualization. But a good hypnosis session involves more than visualizing the goal achieved—it’s not just fantasy. A good hypnosis session also explores any barriers to success—not just practical, tangible, obstacles, but also internal barriers like negative assumptions about our abilities and limits. With that basis, we use hypnosis to prepare for the work needed to achieve success. For example, a student who is struggling because of a negative assumption that he or she isn’t smart enough needs to reverse that assumption, needs to know that he or she has what it takes to do the work required to meet the goal. Hypnosis works well for that.

There are a couple of studies that I’ve written about before, showing that visualization under hypnosis involves the same areas of the brain that are active when people actually perform the activity. This doesn’t happen when people are simply thinking about it (fantasizing). Perhaps that’s part of the reason for a different outcome with hypnosis. When we’ve gone through the process under hypnosis, we are expecting a good outcome because we’ve experienced it before, rather than day-dreaming about how good it will feel.

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