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Charge Up for Good Health

How to Turn Your Dreams Into Reality

Hint: It only starts with wishful thinking. The rest is work.

Americans are so optimistic and rah-rah that it should come as no surprise that cheerleading was invented here.

We’re also the country of origin for The Power of Positive Thinking, the ‘50s book by minister Dr. Norman Vincent Peale; the positive psychology movement, founded by psychologist Martin Seligman; and Oprah Winfrey, an outspoken proponent of the philosophy that if you dream it, it will happen.

We tend not to tolerate pessimism. In our culture, being realistic is, well, a downer.

So it should come as no surprise that when we fantasize about what we want out of life -- a new job, a vacation in faraway places, even just to look like Sarah Jessica Parker in Manolo high heels -- we tend to forget that nothing’s perfect. In fact, say researchers at New York University, nurturing our idealized fantasies makes us forget that there could be some negatives embedded in our heart’s desires.

In other words, our pros-and-cons lists tend to be light on the cons. (You can read the full study here.)

“There’s been a lot written about the benefits of positive thinking,” says researcher Heather Kappes, who conducted the study in which she and her colleagues induced positive fantasies in a group of college student volunteers about wearing high heels, investing in the stock market and exotic vacations. But she says no one ever considers the negative aspects of such optimism.

The Negatives of Being Positive
The dark side of fantasizing is that it may take some of the steam out of action. “If you imagine everything positively and put yourself mentally where you want to be, you can trick your brain into thinking that you’re already there, so you don’t think about the work you have to put in and don’t muster up the energy to get there,” says Kappes.

You also may overlook some vital information that can help you make the right decision: That new job could have you in the office 24/7; high heels hurt and while Australian beaches are beautiful, they’re also home to the largest number of poisonous creatures in the world. Bummer.

But that doesn’t mean you should abandon fantasizing altogether. “Daydreams give us a lot of joy and hope in life,” says Kappes. “Positive thinking can be useful when you’re talking yourself into setting a goal, such as deciding what to do in the future or to lose weight. If you didn’t think you could achieve those things, you’d have no reason to strive for anything.”

How Fantasies Can Lead to Fulfillment
Positive fantasies also keep your dreams alive until you can fulfill them. For instance, you may want to go to Fiji, but your salary will only cover a staycation. Or you’d like to work at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, but your only marine biology experience is with a tank full of guppies in your dorm room. A little more time at the job, a few salary hikes and a tad more education can get you within striking distance of your fantasy life.

At that point, if you’re still serious about making your dreams come true, take the blinders off, says Kappes. “If the con side of your pro-and-con list is so much shorter, it could be because you want it so much. Pause to ask yourself if there are downsides you haven’t considered.”

For more great health and lifestyle content, check out the rest of Completely You