An interview with B. Alan Wallace about Buddhism, science, and the nature of mind

Tricyle Magazine

December 18, 2014

Six Questions for B. Alan Wallace

An interview about Buddhism, science, and the nature of mind

The past four centuries have brought an explosion of scientific knowledge and technological know-how. The march of material progress has, however, left many Buddhist practitioners wondering whether Western society’s external transformation has been matched by an internal one, and if so, what role Buddhism can play in promoting a deeper understanding of both the external and internal worlds. Below, B. Alan Wallace, a uniquely interdisciplinary thinker, responds to six questions on this subject.

Wallace has been a scholar and practitioner of Buddhism since 1970. After spending 14 years training as a Tibetan Buddhist monk and receiving ordination from the Dalai Lama, he went on to earn an undergraduate degree in physics and the philosophy of science and later a doctorate in religious studies. He has written numerous books, including Choosing Reality: A Buddhist View of Physics and the Mind (1989), The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness(2000), and, most recently, Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice (2011). Wallace is, then, well-versed in both Eastern and Western traditions.

Like many people in the Western world, I’ve been raised on a materialist philosophy but have also long been intrigued by questions traditionally belonging to spirituality. And also like many people in my generation, who came of age in the ’70s and ’80s, I’ve long wondered how we can mesh the insights of modern science with a more compassionate and integrated view of the world. Indeed, it seems to me that meshing the spiritual insights of East and West with the more recent tradition of Western scientific inquiry is perhaps the most promising route to a forward-thinking worldview today.

The following interview was conducted over email.

—Tam Hunt

Tam Hunt, a visiting scholar in psychology at UC Santa Barbara, has written about the need for Western science to become less dogmatic and to expand from its overly materialist worldview. In addition, he has written about the need for Buddhism to grow from its traditional roots by, in particular, embracing the insights of an evolutionary worldview that takes seriously the passage of time. His recent book, Eco, Ego, Eros: Essays in Philosophy, Spirituality and Science explores many of these themes.


Why is Buddhism important in today’s high-tech world? The growth of scientific knowledge and technology since I entered my adult years in 1970 has been phenomenal. Never before has humanity so expanded its knowledge and exerted its power over the external world. But in that same period, the human population has doubled; and due to human exploitation of the natural environment, the wildlife population of the planet has been reduced by half, while global warming has imperiled human civilization at large and the ecosphere.

During these last 40 years, when human knowledge of the physical environment, biology, sociology, and economics has increased at an unprecedented rate, modern civilization has seemed hell-bent on destroying itself. For example, before 1970, most of the income gains experienced during economic expansions accrued to most of the people, so that the bottom 90 percent of earners captured at least a majority of the rise in income. But during the 1990s and early 2000s, the huge majority of income gains went to the top 10 percent, and from 2001 to 2007, 98 percent of income gains accrued to the top 10 percent of earners. This wild inequality in the distribution of wealth has gotten so out of hand that the 85 richest people in the world own as much as the 3.5 billion poorest, while almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.

This contradiction between the simultaneous explosion of technology and deprivation of the world’s most vulnerable indicates that our knowledge of and power over the outer environment has not even remotely been matched by our knowledge of the human mind and its vices, the inner causes of suffering, and the resources of the human spirit. Buddhism highlights three fundamental toxins of the mind—greed, hostility, and delusion. For all the information at our disposal, made so readily available through the internet, human civilization evidently has not made any progress in diagnosing or treating these afflictions, let alone exploring the resources of the human spirit—compassion, wisdom, generosity, patience, and inner contentment.

If our high-tech world doesn’t balance knowledge of the external, physical resources of our environment with knowledge of the internal, psychological, and spiritual resources of the human mind, then I fear human society will continue on its present course of self-destruction.

What are some key ways that Buddhism is consonant with modern science? Fundamentally, I find Buddhist and scientific methods of investigating reality to be complementary, as are many of their discoveries. Both traditions focus on the empirical and rational exploration of reality, not on accepting beliefs out of blind faith. The Dalai Lama comments: “A general basic stance of Buddhism is that it is inappropriate to hold a view that is logically inconsistent. This is taboo. But even more taboo than holding a view that is logically inconsistent, is holding a view that goes against direct experience.”

This is consonant with an assertion attributed to the Buddha and widely quoted in Tibetan Buddhism: “Monks, just as the wise accept gold after testing it by heating, cutting, and rubbing it, so are my words to be accepted after examining them, but not out of respect for me.” A 3rd-century Indian Buddhist contemplative named Aryadeva claimed in a classic treatise that there are just three qualities one must have to venture onto the Buddhist path of inquiry: one must be perceptive and unbiased, and simultaneously enthusiastic about putting the teachings to the test of experience.

What are some key ways that Buddhism is not consonant with modern science? Despite their commonalities, the methods of Buddhist and scientific inquiry are very different. Buddhist inquiry fundamentally focuses on gaining first-person experiential insight into the reality of suffering, the way that suffering causes imbalances and toxins of the mind, the possibility of freedom from suffering, and the path to such freedom. Buddhism is not concerned with the nature of reality as it exists independently of human experience, but rather with the reality of human experience.

Buddhists have never sought a God’s-eye perspective on reality. The religion is essentially oriented toward the realization of genuine happiness, akin to what the ancient Greeks, starting with Socrates, called eudaimonia. This is a quality of well-being not dependent upon sensory or intellectual stimulation; it stems from leading an ethical, which is to say nonviolent, way of life. Such a path to freedom yields a sense of well-being that emerges from what we bring to the world, not from what we get out of it. The realization of freedom from suffering and its inner causes depends upon the close examination of one’s own experience from a first-person perspective, refined through rigorous meditative training in mindfulness and introspection.

Modern science, on the other hand, tracing back to Galileo, is primarily focused on fathoming the nature of the objective, physical, quantifiable universe from a third-person perspective. The original motivation of science—as expressed by Galileo and other pioneers of the Scientific Revolution—was to understand the mind of the creator by way of his creation. This pursuit of a God’s-eye perspective sought to understand reality as it exists independently of human experience. Rather than refining the mental faculties of mindfulness and introspection, scientists have refined technology to try to fathom the nature of objective, physical reality in the language of mathematics.

The symbiotic development of science and technology over the past four centuries has greatly contributed to humanity’s “hedonic happiness,” which is a kind of well-being that arises from sensory and intellectual stimulation—one that is not contingent on ethics, mental balance, or wisdom. Hedonic pleasures are those we get from the world around us, and unsurprisingly, science has focused on the causes of suffering that stem from the physical world.

Both eudaimonia and hedonic well-being are important, as are the first-person and third-person approaches to understanding reality. For Buddhism, the mind is central to both human existence and the world of experience, while material concerns are secondary. For science, the nature of matter and its emergent properties are central, while the mind and subjective experience are secondary. So there is a fundamental complementarity, and at the same time a certain tension, between these two approaches to understanding the world and the good life.

To my mind, the principal obstacle to a deep integration of Buddhist insight and scientific discovery is the uncritical acceptance among many scientists—and increasingly the general public—of the metaphysical principles of scientific materialism. The fundamental belief of this scientific materialism is that the whole of reality consists only of space-time and matter-energy, and their emergent properties. This implies that the only true causation is physical causation, that there are no nonphysical influences in the universe. When applied to human existence, this worldview implies that subjective experience is either physical—despite all evidence to the contrary—or doesn’t exist at all, which is simply insulting to our intelligence. As the philosopher John R. Searle states in his bookThe Rediscovery of the Mind, “Earlier materialists argued that there aren’t any such things as separate mental phenomena, because mental phenomena are identical with brain states. More recent materialists argue that there aren’t any such things as separate mental phenomena because they are not identical with brain states. I find this pattern very revealing, and what it reveals is an urge to get rid of mental phenomena at any cost.”

It is commonplace nowadays to equate the mind with the brain, or to insist that the mind is nothing more than a function of the brain. But this is merely a metaphysical belief that has never been validated through scientific research. While the mind and brain are clearly correlated in precise ways that have been revealed through advances in cognitive neuroscience, the exact nature of those correlations remains a mystery. This mystery, however, is veiled by the illusion of knowledge that the mind-body problem has already been solved. But, while all other branches of modern science have focused on the direct observation of the natural phenomena they seek to understand, the cognitive sciences have insisted on avoiding such direct observation of mental phenomena. The simple reason for this choice is that subjectively experienced mental processes and states of consciousness do not fit within the materialist paradigm that has dominated science since the beginning of the 20th century.

As both contemplatives and scientists wake up to the limitations of their respective pursuits of knowledge, we may see a renaissance in open-minded, rigorous contemplative inquiry. This flourishing would call for an integration of first-person and third-person methods of research, which may enhance the hedonic and eudaimonic well-being of humanity. The world is facing unprecedented challenges—environmental, economic, social, and moral—and to successfully rise to meet these challenges we must draw on the wisdom of the East and the West, of the ancient and the modern. The same challenges that imperil our very existence may help us unite in ways never before witnessed in human history.

How can we best accelerate the spread of mindfulness and compassion, which are the hallmarks of modern Buddhist practice? We can agree that mindfulness and compassion are virtues that everyone should cultivate and which may help resolve some of modern society’s existential and environmental crises. But to extract these qualities from the rich, integrated fabric of Buddhist theory and practice and then insert them within a materialistic worldview, hedonistic value system, and consumer-driven way of life is unlikely to bring about any deep and lasting change.Modern society’s existential and environmental crises were not created by traditional, longstanding religious beliefs. Rather, these crises arose primarily in the 20th century, the first era in human history that was strongly dominated by scientific materialism. For all the advances in science and technology during that century, it also witnessed the most savage inhumanity of man against man, the greatest decimation of other species, and the most catastrophic degradation of the ecosphere.

A materialistic worldview naturally results in valuing only material things and their emergent properties, such as wealth, power, and status. The hedonistic pursuit of these ideals naturally results in a way of life focused on ever-increasing production and consumption. This fully integrated triad—a materialistic worldview, values, and way of life—is exhausting the natural resources of our planet and helping bring about the demise of human civilization. So we need to look beyond some quick fixes of increased mindfulness and compassion and fundamentally reevaluate our beliefs about the nature of human existence, our values, and the way we lead our lives. Buddhism can contribute greatly to such a renaissance, but not if it is subjected to the same reductionism that materialism has thrust upon human nature.

There is a view fairly described as “Buddhist dualism,” a type of dualism that posits an independent mind in addition to a world of matter and energy. I don’t see Buddhist dualism as a clear advance over hard materialism because it gives rise to its own set of problems, including questions about how mind and body interact if they’re independent of each other. Isn’t there room for a better inegration of mind and body in our philosophical edifice? Modern civilization suffers from a severe imagination deficit disorder in its inability to imagine any alternatives other than materialistic monism or Cartesian dualism. We’ve known since the 19th century that the Cartesian notion of two substantially real kinds of stuff—material and mental—is a dead end, for there’s no coherent way in which they can causally interact. But materialism fares no better in giving a coherent understanding of the nature of subjective experience or how it causally interacts with the brain. So we have two dead ends.

It’s a complete mistake to put the Buddhist view of the mind and body in the Cartesian box, for the rich and diverse schools of Buddhism emerged outside the context of European civilization. Buddhism is not dualistic; it’s pluralistic. It’s much more aligned with the views of William James than Descartes. Or, to bring this into the 21st century, it’s more akin to the views of the eminent physicist George Ellis, coauthor of The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time with Stephen Hawking, considered to be one of the world’s leading theorists in cosmology. He has proposed a fourfold model of reality, consisting of (1) matter and forces, (2) consciousness, (3) physical and biological possibilities, and (4) mathematical reality. All of these levels of existence, he proposes, are equally real and distinct, and they relate to each other through causal links. This model transcends the ideological boxes in which the Western mind has been stuck for centuries, and it accords much more closely to Buddhist views of reality

As for the hypothesis that there is a dimension of consciousness that is not contingent upon a functioning brain, it should be assessed not by logical but empirical facts. In the West, we have ignored our own rich Judeo-Christian heritage of contemplative inquiry, instead equating religious belief with mere reliance upon divine authority. Then we project this same prejudice on Buddhism and other Asian contemplative traditions, never considering that their centuries of first-person experiential investigation might have yielded discoveries that are not accessible through studying the mind objectively.

You’ve acknowledged that Buddhist notions of karma are very difficult to evaluate empirically. If this is the case, isn’t this indicative of a need for reform? Shouldn’t Buddhism be entirely empirical? Why be so casual in dismissing what may be one of the greatest discoveries of the Buddhist tradition, allegedly made by the Buddha himself and replicated many times over the past 2,500 years by numerous, highly accomplished Buddhist contemplatives? There’s an element of ethnocentricity here that is indefensible in the 21st century, namely the notion that scientists have a monopoly on rigorous methods of rational and empirical study of the natural world.

For all the advances in the mind sciences over the past 135 years, scientists have left modern society in the dark about the nature, origins, and causal efficacy of consciousness. And some, like Princeton University neuroscientist Michael Graziano, veil this ignorance by suggesting there is no mind-body problem because there is no such thing as subjective experience.

There is no discipline of knowledge that is entirely empirical, so there is no reason why Buddhism should sacrifice its rich theoretical heritage to satisfy the prejudices of those who can’t imagine that Buddhists have made discoveries of their own about the nature of the mind and its role in nature.

Are you raising nice kids? A Harvard psychologist gives 5 ways to raise them to be kind

Posted in the Washington Post on July 18

By Amy Joyce

Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist with the graduate school of education, and the Making Caring Common Project have come up with recommendations about how to raise children to become caring, respectful and responsible adults. (The Washington Post)

Earlier this year, I wrote about teaching empathy, and whether you are a parent who does so. The idea behind it is from Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist with the graduate school of education, who runs theMaking Caring Common project, aimed to help teach kids to be kind.

I know, you’d think they are or that parents are teaching that themselves, right? Not so, according to a new study released by the group.  About 80 percent of the youth in the study said their parents were more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether they cared for others. The interviewees were also three times more likely to agree that “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”

Weissbourd and his cohorts have come up with recommendations about how to raise children to become caring, respectful and responsible adults. Why is this important? Because if we want our children to be moral people, we have to, well, raise them that way.

“Children are not born simply good or bad and we should never give up on them. They need adults who will help them become caring, respectful, and responsible for their communities at every stage of their childhood,” the researchers write.

The five strategies to raise moral, caring children, according to Making Caring Common:

1. Make caring for others a priority

Why? Parents tend to prioritize their children’s happiness and achievements over their children’s concern for others. But children need to learn to balance their needs with the needs of others, whether it’s passing the ball to a teammate or deciding to stand up for friend who is being bullied.

How? Children need to hear from parents that caring for others is a top priority. A big part of that is holding children to high ethical expectations, such as honoring their commitments, even if it makes them unhappy. For example, before kids quit a sports team, band, or a friendship, we should ask them to consider their obligations to the group or the friend and encourage them to work out problems before quitting.

Try this
• Instead of saying to your kids: “The most important thing is that you’re happy,” say “The most important thing is that you’re kind.”
• Make sure that your older children always address others respectfully, even when they’re tired, distracted, or angry.
• Emphasize caring when you interact with other key adults in your children’s lives. For example, ask teachers whether your children are good community members at school.

2. Provide opportunities for children to practice caring and gratitude

Why? It’s never too late to become a good person, but it won’t happen on its own. Children need to practice caring for others and expressing gratitude for those who care for them and contribute to others’ lives. Studies show that people who are in the habit of expressing gratitude are more likely to be helpful, generous, compassionate, and forgiving—and they’re also more likely to be happy and healthy.

How? Learning to be caring is like learning to play a sport or an instrument. Daily repetition—whether it’s a helping a friend with homework, pitching in around the house, or having a classroom job—make caring second nature and develop and hone youth’s caregiving capacities. Learning gratitude similarly involves regularly practicing it.

Try this
• Don’t reward your child for every act of helpfulness, such as clearing the dinner table. We should expect our kids to help around the house, with siblings, and with neighbors and only reward uncommon acts of kindness.

• Talk to your child about caring and uncaring acts they see on television and about acts of justice and injustice they might witness or hear about in the news.

• Make gratitude a daily ritual at dinnertime, bedtime, in the car, or on the subway. Express thanks for those who contribute to us and others in large and small ways.

3. Expand your child’s circle of concern.

Why?  Almost all children care about a small circle of their families and friends. Our challenge is help our children learn to care about someone outside that circle, such as the new kid in class, someone who doesn’t speak their language, the school custodian, or someone who lives in a distant country.

How?  Children need to learn to zoom in, by listening closely and attending to those in their immediate circle, and to zoom out, by taking in the big picture and considering the many perspectives of the people they interact with daily, including those who are vulnerable. They also need to consider how their decisions, such as quitting a sports team or a band, can ripple out and harm various members of their communities. Especially in our more global world, children need to develop concern for people who live in very different cultures and communities than their own.

Try this
• Make sure your children are friendly and grateful with all of the people in their daily lives, such as a bus driver or a waitress.

• Encourage children to care for those who are vulnerable. Give children some simple ideas for stepping into the “caring and courage zone,” like comforting a classmate who was teased.

• Use a newspaper or TV story to encourage your child to think about hardships faced by children in another country.

4. Be a strong moral role model and mentor.

Why?  Children learn ethical values by watching the actions of adults they respect. They also learn values by thinking through ethical dilemmas with adults, e.g. “Should I invite a new neighbor to my birthday party when my best friend doesn’t like her?”

How?  Being a moral role model and mentor means that we need to practice honesty, fairness, and caring ourselves. But it doesn’t mean being perfect all the time. For our children to respect and trust us, we need to acknowledge our mistakes and flaws. We also need to respect children’s thinking and listen to their perspectives, demonstrating to them how we want them to engage others.

Try this:
• Model caring for others by doing community service at least once a month. Even better, do this service with your child.

• Give your child an ethical dilemma at dinner or ask your child about dilemmas they’ve faced.

5. Guide children in managing destructive feelings

Why?  Often the ability to care for others is overwhelmed by anger, shame, envy, or other negative feelings.

How?  We need to teach children that all feelings are okay, but some ways of dealing with them are not helpful. Children need our help learning to cope with these feelings in productive ways.

Try this
Here’s a simple way to teach your kids to calm down: ask your child to stop, take a deep breath through the nose and exhale through the mouth, and count to five. Practice when your child is calm. Then, when you see her getting upset, remind her about the steps and do them with her. After a while she’ll start to do it on her own so that she can express her feelings in a helpful and appropriate way.

Impact of meditation, support groups seen at cellular level in breast cancer survivors

November 3, 2014 Alberta Health Services

CALGARY — For the first time, researchers have shown that practising mindfulness meditation or being involved in a support group has a positive physical impact at the cellular level in breast cancer survivors.

A group working out of Alberta Health Services’ Tom Baker Cancer Centre and the University of Calgary Department of Oncology has demonstrated that telomeres – protein complexes at the end of chromosomes – maintain their length in breast cancer survivors who practise meditation or are involved in support groups, while they shorten in a comparison group without any intervention.

Although the disease-regulating properties of telomeres aren’t fully understood, shortened telomeres are associated with several disease states, as well as cell aging, while longer telomeres are thought to be protective against disease.

“We already know that psychosocial interventions like mindfulness meditation will help you feel better mentally, but now for the first time we have evidence that they can also influence key aspects of your biology,” says Dr. Linda E. Carlson, PhD, principal investigator and director of research in the Psychosocial Resources Department at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre.

“It was surprising that we could see any difference in telomere length at all over the three-month period studied,” says Dr. Carlson, who is also a U of C professor in the Faculty of Arts and the Cumming School of Medicine, and a member of the Southern Alberta Cancer Institute. “Further research is needed to better quantify these potential health benefits, but this is an exciting discovery that provides encouraging news.”

The study was published online today in the journal Cancer. It can be found at:

A total of 88 breast cancer survivors who had completed their treatments for at least three months were involved for the duration of the study. The average age was 55 and most participants had ended treatment two years prior. To be eligible, they also had to be experiencing significant levels of emotional distress.

In the Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery group, participants attended eight weekly, 90-minute group sessions that provided instruction on mindfulness meditation and gentle Hatha yoga, with the goal of cultivating non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. Participants were also asked to practise meditation and yoga at home for 45 minutes daily.

In the Supportive Expressive Therapy group, participants met for 90 minutes weekly for 12 weeks and were encouraged to talk openly about their concerns and their feelings. The objectives were to build mutual support and to guide women in expressing a wide range of both difficult and positive emotions, rather than suppressing or repressing them.

The participants randomly placed in the control group attended one, six-hour stress management seminar.

All study participants had their blood analysed and telomere length measured before and after the interventions.

Scientists have shown a short-term effect of these interventions on telomere length compared to a control group, but it’s not known if the effects are lasting. Dr. Carlson says another avenue for further research is to see if the psychosocial interventions have a positive impact beyond the three months of the study period.

Allison McPherson was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008. When she joined the study, she was placed in the mindfulness-based cancer recovery group. Today, she says that experience has been life-changing.

“I was skeptical at first and thought it was a bunch of hocus-pocus,” says McPherson, who underwent a full year of chemotherapy and numerous surgeries. “But I now practise mindfulness throughout the day and it’s reminded me to become less reactive and kinder toward myself and others.”

Study participant Deanne David was also placed in the mindfulness group. “Being part of this made a huge difference to me,” she says. “I think people involved in their own cancer journey would benefit from learning more about mindfulness and connecting with others who are going through the same things.”

The research was funded by the Alberta Cancer Foundation and the Canadian Breast Cancer Research Alliance.

Calgary-area cancer patients can access information about Alberta Health Services programs in both mindfulness meditation and supportive expressive therapy, as well as other support programs at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, by calling 403-355-3207.

Alberta Health Services is the provincial health authority responsible for planning and delivering health supports and services for more than four million adults and children living in Alberta. Its mission is to provide a patient-focused, quality health system that is accessible and sustainable for all Albertans.

The University of Calgary is a leading Canadian university located in the nation’s most enterprising city. The university has a clear strategic direction – “Eyes High” – to become one of Canada’s top five research universities by 2016, grounded in innovative learning and teaching and fully integrated with the community of Calgary. For more information, visit .

Pain – Our Precious Teacher

By John Bruna

“I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.” Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

It is quite natural and very healthy to seek out pleasure in our lives and try to avoid pain. From the moment we wake up, it is a natural instinct to seek happiness and try to plan our day around people and activities that bring us joy. I have yet to meet the person that wakes up with the attitude of intentionally seeking pain.

Having said that, pain is an integral part of life and does serve a very important purpose. Pain lets us know what we needs attention. When we are sick our body is letting us know that it is out of balance and we need to tend to it. A pain in our body, such as a stubbed toe, broken finger or a sore muscle, let us know we need to take care of it. Likewise, mental and emotional suffering in our life, informs us that we have some inner work to do.

If we look back in our lives, we will find that the times that we grew the most were often the result of painful events in our lives. It is when times are difficult and challenging that we are driven to look inside and develop ourselves. When life is easy and everything is going our way, we are rarely inspired to stretch ourselves and grow. It is the challenges of life that give us the opportunity to cultivate our highest potentials.

Of course this is not fun, nor do I suggest that we search out pain so that we can grow. Rather, that we understand that pain is a normal part of life and that it serves a purpose. When painful or challenging events in life do arise, and they will, instead of trying to avoid or minimize them, we have the opportunity to learn from them. They inform us about ourselves and the world we live in and provide us with the incentive to develop ourselves, cultivating the qualities, values, and wisdom to be the person we want to be.

In truth, life is filled with ups and downs, joys and sorrows, challenges and opportunity, pain and pleasure. For some reason, we think that our life should only contain the good stuff. As unrealistic as this is, it tends to be a pervasive attitude and makes even common problems and difficulties all the more challenging to deal with. If we can remember that we’ve already overcome much adversity in our lives, and it was in dealing with the adversity that we grew the most, when pain inevitably does show up, we can see it as a teacher, one more time, guiding us to look within and grow.

The Problem With Positive Thinking

But the truth is that positive thinking often hinders us. More than two decades ago, I conducted a study in which I presented women enrolled in a weight-reduction program with several short, open-ended scenarios about future events — and asked them to imagine how they would fare in each one. Some of these scenarios asked the women to imagine that they had successfully completed the program; others asked them to imagine situations in which they were tempted to cheat on their diets. I then asked the women to rate how positive or negative their resulting thoughts and images were.

A year later, I checked in on these women. The results were striking: The more positively women had imagined themselves in these scenarios, thefewer pounds they had lost.

My colleagues and I have since performed many follow-up studies, observing a range of people, including children and adults; residents of different countries (the United States and Germany); and people with various kinds of wishes — college students wanting a date, hip-replacement patients hoping to get back on their feet, graduate students looking for a job, schoolchildren wishing to get good grades. In each of these studies, the results have been clear: Fantasizing about happy outcomes — about smoothly attaining your wishes — didn’t help. Indeed, it hindered people from realizing their dreams.

Why doesn’t positive thinking work the way you might assume? As my colleagues and I have discovered, dreaming about the future calms you down, measurably reducing systolic blood pressure, but it also can drain you of the energy you need to take action in pursuit of your goals.

In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, we asked two groups of college students to write about what lay in store for the coming week. One group was asked to imagine that the week would be great. The other group was just asked to write down any thoughts about the week that came to mind. The students who had positively fantasized reported feeling less energized than those in the control group. As we later documented, they also went on to accomplish less during that week.

Positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we’ve already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it.

Some critics of positive thinking have advised people to discard all happy talk and “get real” by dwelling on the challenges or obstacles. But this is too extreme a correction. Studies have shown that this strategy doesn’t work any better than entertaining positive fantasies.

What does work better is a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with “realism.” Here’s how it works. Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.

When participants have performed mental contrasting with wishes that are not reasonable or attainable, they have disengaged more from these wishes. Mental contrasting spurs us on when it makes sense to pursue a wish, and lets us abandon wishes more readily when it doesn’t, so that we can go after other, more reasonable ambitions.

In a recent study on healthy eating and exercise, we divided participants into two groups. Members of one group engaged in mental contrasting and then performed a planning exercise designed to help them overcome whatever obstacles stood in their way. Four months later, members of this group were working out twice as long each week as the control group and eating considerably more vegetables. In other studies, we found that people who engaged in mental contrasting recovered from chronic back pain better, behaved more constructively in relationships, got better grades in school and even managed stress better in the workplace.

Positive thinking is pleasurable, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Like so much in life, attaining goals requires a balanced and moderate approach, neither dwelling on the downsides nor a forced jumping for joy.