We have all heard the tale of the Little Engine That Could. We have all heard, from friends, family, the media, our therapists, how positive thinking can have positive implications for all life areas including work performance, goal achievement, marital satisfaction, emotional health, and even physical health. I work with clients all the time on changing their thought processes, it is a strategy called cognitive reframing within cognitive behavioral therapy.

There is plenty of research that demonstrates the power of positive thoughts yet emerging research is exploring just what positive thoughts are helpful. It may be that blanket positive thinking is not beneficial. Research has shown that realistic positive thinking is actually the key. This is referred to as “grounded hope,” a positive view based firmly in reality. In fact, when you think about it, the Little Engine That Could is just such a story. So instead of general positive thinking, what should you do?

1. Focus on positive thoughts grounded in reality. I once saw an equation:

happiness = reality – expectations

What that means is that the more disproportionate our expectations to our reality, the less happy we will be. Of course, we should set expectations at a level that serves as motivation to work towards our goals. Yet, consistently setting expectations too high, only leads to constant failure and disappointment. For example, if you are starting out as a busboy in a restaurant, thinking positive thoughts of being a Michelin starred chef is probably not going to be helpful. Now, I am not saying to not have that dream. I am just saying to set realistic goals. Picture yourself moving up to a server and then maybe a line cook. You will be more likely to works towards those realistic goals and when you reach those goals, you will feel a sense of accomplishment and pride that will only fuel you further. It is okay to reach for the stars, just focus your positive thoughts on the steps needed to get there.

2. Take action. Positive thinking will do nothing if you sit on the couch waiting for things to happen. Interestingly enough, at one point, I had two clients who relocated to Chicago within the previous few years and changed careers yet also wanted to get reconnected with their original love, acting. Both clients struggled with anxiety and depression that hindered them from pursuing their goals. One decided to take some classes and join a local acting group. The other did nothing, missing various activities and events. What one do you think felt more satisfied and happy?

3. Allow defensive pessimism. It is okay, and even helpful, to imagine the worst case scenario. At times, this can actually help to alleviate anxiety, as you may just find that if the worst case scenario does occur, you will be able to cope and you will be just fine. Think about having to give a presentation for school or work. Thinking that you will knock it out of the ballpark can help with your confidence and you should think these positive, self-affirming thoughts. While also, if you allow yourself to also explore the worst case scenario, you can strengthen your defenses.

In conclusion, let’s not let positive thinking get a bad rap. It is positive thinking done in the right way that is the key.