3 Ways Positivity Can Silently Kill Your Goals, Scientifically Backed


“Ha! You said positivity can kill goals. Huh? You were serious? W…what?”

A cheerful disposition can derail your goals if you’re not careful. To make sure it doesn’t happen to you, here are the three things to watch out for and what to do about them…

#1: Being Happier Makes You Think More Abstractly, But Concrete Goals Require Concrete Thinking

What’s the difference between a happy and unhappy person?

According to five experiments (by Professors Labroo and Patrick), a key difference between these two people is where their mind is focused. Experiments began with manipulating participants’ moods (such as by asking them to “think of the best/worst day of your life”), and then they were tested on how abstract their interpretation of various data was. In one experiment, after their emotions were manipulated, they would ask them for words related to “soda.” Participants might say things like, “beverage” (abstract) or “Pepsi” (concrete).

They concluded from the study’s five experiments that happier moods contributed to more abstract thinking. But why?

The theory is that a less-than-happy person will be wrapped up in the immediacy of their discontentment. The happy person, however, will view the present moment as “benign,” which allows the mind to safely “leave” the present moment in favor of more abstract thinking. I guess you could call it daydreaming. The abstract thinking wasn’t just about a person’s own life though – it permeated through the person’s entire perspective of the world (i.e. they were more likely to say “beverage” than “Pepsi” when they were happier).

What’s interesting is the impact this has on goals, and it isn’t all positive.

The two types of goals are abstract and concrete. An abstract goal is “I want to be rich” while a related concrete goal is “I want to make $100 tomorrow selling frisbees.” Most people strongly recommend that you aim for concrete goals, but it is also important to have an idea of your abstract life goals (as explained in this post, abstract life goals are the ideal source of concrete goals). I mentioned that this study found happiness to increase abstract thinking. This was shown to help with abstract goals, but they noted that this can actually hinder the self-regulation required for concrete goals.

“We show that abstract construal does not increase adoption of all goals; rather, it increases adoption of abstract goals. Thus, abstract construal can reduce self-regulation when goals are concrete.” – Labroo & Patrick

Now, does anyone else see the problem here?

Happiness seems to make it harder for us to achieve concrete goals, which are very important. For starters, having concrete goals allows us to form “implementation intentions,” which is a fancy phrase that means planning out the exact scenario in which you will meet your goal. For example, an implementation intention for doing 35 push-ups is tomorrow at 3:34 PM in your living room. These implementation intentions have been shown to improve the likelihood of goal success according to multiple studies. Abstract goals like “I want to be rich” are vague and unmeasurable, making them not ideal for implementation intentions.

The good news is that the abstract thinking that comes from happiness can help you with your abstract goals like broader life planning and strategy. According to the study, it also appears to come with some flexibility in thinking, which makes sense with a zoomed out perspective. But for getting your concrete goals taken care of, happiness isn’t necessarily going to be helpful. For concrete goals, you need to zoom in and focus your mind on a specific activity.

What to do: As with many things, knowing this phenomenon occurs is the best way to combat it. Abstract thinking, to be clear, is only undesirable if you need to focus in the moment. Knowing that happiness triggers your brain to think abstractly will allow you to understand and react accordingly and purposefully narrow your focus if you need to work on a concrete goal. Without knowing this, you’d likely never realize that you’re thinking too abstractly. It’s not like an alarm goes off in your head that says, “ABSTRACT MODE ACTIVATED.” 🙂

abstract kids

These kids are DEFINITELY thinking abstractly.

#2: Acknowledging Positive Progress Tempts You To Regress

A study by Ayelet Fishbach and Ravi Dhar found that dieters who were reminded about their progress toward their weight loss goals were much more likely to cave in to a tempting setback than those who weren’t reminded. The researchers reminded one group of their progress and not the other group, and then offered both groups a reward choice – an apple or a chocolate bar. Of the group who was reminded of their progress, 85% chose the chocolate bar compared to 58% of the other group. But dang, both groups seem to like chocolate. I just ate three of those chocolate gold coins, so I seem to like it too.

Progress toward your goal is a wonderful thing, objectively speaking, but it poses a unique temptation that comes from feeling like you deserve a reward.

What to do: The best way to handle this particular phenomenon might be to expect it and plan ahead, and instead of caving in to the temptation that could cause regression, find another way to reward yourself. If you’re doing well with your diet, and think you deserve a reward, go see a movie or take your friends bowling instead of eating the chocolate bar. Also, try to see the inherent reward in making real progress. Growing as a person is a significant internal reward, and you’d do well to seek this reward over external “treats.” Remember that your ultimate goal is to continue your progress, and not to sabotage it with rewards of regression, whether you deserve them or not. What you really deserve is more progress!

One other thing you can try is moderation. There’s a big difference between a small bowl of ice cream and a massive fudge sundae (mmm…). There’s a big difference between watching one TV show and watching eight in a row. If you absolutely can’t resist, then at least moderate the quantity of your reward.

#3: Telling People Your Goals Can Make You Feel Successful Before You Do Anything

Derek Sivers gave this great TED Talk about how telling people your goals has been shown in numerous studies to give you a sense of satisfaction before you do anything about it. The positive response internally and from people combined with the stated intention has a way of making us feel like we’re mostly there, even if we haven’t started. The theory is called self-completion.

the king

This guy told everyone his vague goals. See what happens?

What happens with self-completion is that your sense of satisfaction causes you to call it quits earlier than usual, because you feel as if you’ve made real progress. As the researchers say, “Other people’s taking notice of one’s identity-relevant intentions apparently engenders a premature sense of completeness regarding the identity goal.”

But the key factor in the studies referenced is that the intentions stated were vague goals such as these (verbatim from the study): “I will take my reading assignments more seriously” and “I intend to study more statistics.” These vague identity-based goals – which students were reportedly serious about pursuing – were unable to be used for accountability, because they’re unspecific and relative. This makes sense as other studies have shown that telling other people your goals for the sake of accountability actually serves as a big boost for goal achievement. In the linked study, the goals shared were specific.

What to do: If you’re excited about writing more or exercising more, do NOT tell anyone this vague intention. If you must tell someone, be specific. Say “I’m going to write 500 words a day starting today” or “I’m going to run on the treadmill for 20 minutes three times per week.” This specific goal brings an accountability element to it. This study also showed a benefit from a weekly accountability check in, so it wouldn’t hurt to ask for that either.

Goals And Positive Thinking Conclusion

There’s a well-studied concept called self-efficacy which simply refers to people’s belief that they can succeed in a situation. Common sense tells us that there’s a connection between believing in yourself and thinking positively, and Psychologist Albert Bandura from Stanford University confirms that “positive mood enhances perceived self-efficacy, despondent mood diminishes it.”

Self-efficacy has been shown to be a critical factor in goal pursuit. Take a look at how powerful and important self-efficacy is from this great summary of self-efficacy’s impact, from Kendra Cherry’s Psychology Today article:

People with a strong sense of self-efficacy:

  • View challenging problems as tasks to be mastered
  • Develop deeper interest in the activities in which they participate
  • Form a stronger sense of commitment to their interests and activities
  • Recover quickly from setbacks and disappointments

People with a weak sense of self-efficacy:

  • Avoid challenging tasks
  • Believe that difficult tasks and situations are beyond their capabilities
  • Focus on personal failings and negative outcomes
  • Quickly lose confidence in personal abilities

Kendra Cherry

So while a base level of positive thinking is helpful for achieving goals, it has certain psychological effects that can sabotage your goal progress. If you want to avoid these pitfalls and reap the benefits of positive thinking, be aware of the following dangers (recap):

  1. Happiness tends to make you think abstractly, so if you’re feeling happy, and I hope you are, be aware of how this can impact your concrete goals. Having concrete goals that align with your abstract goals should make this pitfall much easier to manage because it creates a stronger connection and sense of congruence between your abstract goals and your concrete goals.
  2. Be wary of progress sabotage! Making progress is great, but be careful that your reward for good performance isn’t a direct setback to your goals or you’ll never get over the hump. Seek out alternative rewards or use moderation smartly.
  3. If you’re going to tell someone your goal(s), don’t be vague. If you really want to be an Astronaut, the studies suggest that it hurts your chances to tell others. Instead of or in addition to that, tell them your immediate and specific goals that will move you toward your long term goal. Telling people vague goals makes you more likely to fail and telling them specific goals makes you more likely to succeed.

photos by brad montgomeryepSos.desnigl3t

About the Author

I'm lazy, but you can call me Stephen. When you're as lazy as I am, you need superior strategies to live well. My strategies are so effective that I'm productive every single day. As the world tries to figure out how to always stay motivated, I create strategies that don't require it.

SJ Scott

Another great and in depth article Stephen. I loved how you backed it all up with the actual experiments. So often you just see regurgitated fare without any facts to back them up.

I like all the final solutions a lot too, specifically # 3 I am a huge fan of specificity and accountability of goals.

Have a great weekend!


Stephen Guise

Thanks! This kind of article really required some backing because people aren’t eager to believe that happiness can be harmful in any way. The good news is that all of this can be mitigated.

Specificity is so important, and accountability can help (also helpful is writing things down, a form of self-accountability).

Thanks SJ, and you have a great weekend too!


jamie flexman

Ahh, number 3 – I was dead set on travelling to Germany last year and I told everyone because I fully expected it to happen. I even felt like I had already been given the amount of stuff I was talking about..

I didn’t go – for many reasons.

There is always a fine line between confidence in your goals and leaving enough doubt so that we keep trying to achieve them.

Stephen Guise

Good example Jamie. You should go to Germany though – it’s awesome! I was there for a month and loved it.

I like what you said about leaving doubt. In large amounts, doubt can stop us, but in small amounts, it can drive us to “prove it.” Great insight. Cheers!

Vishaun Kistan

Great content, Stephen. Learning to balance ourselves from positivity and negativity will indeed bring great effect in our journey to self growth and development.

Stephen Guise

Thanks Vishaun!

Onder Hassan

Great post Stephen,

I think point #2 is the most profound because I’ve often said that happiness can’t always be achieved. It’s simply not normal to be happy 100% of the time and usually comes whenever i’m challenged and working hard towards something.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls this being in ‘flow’. Its during flow where time seems to speed up and have the right balance between challenge and satisfaction with what you’re doing. I’ve experienced this all the time in my life personally whenever I reached a stage where I was challenged.

I would quickly get bored and stop pursuing what i’m doing once I found the task easy until I started looking at the activity objectively and set myself more challenging goals.

So based on what you’ve wrote, I think being happy isn’t what makes us do something. It’s actually the opposite. It’s due to dissatisfaction with your current situation that gives you the drive and motivation to do what needs to be done in the first place.

Otherwise the journey to get there will be very difficult as the obstacles are very emotionally challenging. You need that sadness as a reminder to drive you forwards due to no longer wanting to be where you currently are.

Stephen Guise

Thanks Onder. Great thoughts!

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