The Right Amount of Optimism

Like so many other qualities, optimism is one that you want to have in the right amount.  Too much optimism and you may be viewed by others as naïve or Pollyanna-ish.  Too little and you’re viewed as a grouchy naysayer.

What is the right amount of optimism?  Should the level vary depending on whether you’re referring to your personal or professional life?

According to researchers, pessimism is linked to greater incidence of physical and mental disorders.  Optimists, those who expect better outcomes, have better health and achievement, probably due to better coping and health strategies. So the data suggest it’s better to be an optimist.

How does one improve their level of optimism?  I think it helps to understand the psychology of optimism in order to be able to optimize optimism levels.  First, we should understand that what we know and how we interpret the world is subjective.  That’s not to say we might not have strong opinions about our world.  Understanding that our interpretation of events, the meaning we assign to those events, and even our understanding of the world itself is not an exact science.  Predicting the future, or even understanding the past, therefore is subject to a wide range of interpretation.  Finding the right level of optimism means focusing on the favorable side of that range while not ignoring the pessimistic side.  As mom used to say, “hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”

The way we interpret events and motivations can be cognitively broken down further into three categories.  First, optimistic people tend to view setbacks as limited to that event, but opportunities as pervasive.  For example, if I’m an optimist, I might say that the mean person is an anomaly, but nice people are everywhere.  Second, optimistic people tend to believe that setbacks are temporary and opportunities are permanent.  For example, as an optimist I might say that my job loss is a short-term setback until I get my fabulous new job.  Finally, optimists tend not to personalize setbacks.  In other words, my job loss was due to personality differences with my coworkers, not because everyone hates me.

Psychologists don’t really talk about self-fulfilling prophecies, but I will.  Our belief system tends to create the reality that we believe exists.  In the above examples, if I believe mean people are everywhere and that everyone hates me, how will I interact with the world?  Will I be friendly and cheerful, or defensive and sulky?  Which is likely to be treated well by others?

Confirmation bias means that I will also only notice the mean and unkind gestures because that confirms the pessimism bias I have in place; I will tend not to notice the kind and friendly gestures that are offered to me.  I will see what I expect to see.  For instance, New York and Paris are considered to be full of the rudest people in the world. I personally have never met a rude person in either city.  They have been nothing but exceptionally kind to me – they’re my favorite places to visit!  Am I being an unrealistic optimist?  Well, my experience shows that finding only kind people is within the realm of possibility.  So, thankfully, no.

This self-fulfilling reality actually has been documented in the classroom.  Teachers that believe their students have high potential tend to have more successful students.  Similarly, I believe when we approach others expecting them to be their best self, then they likewise tend to rise to that expectation.

So encourage your optimistic side, staying within the bounds of reality.  You’ll be healthier, more successful, and yes, happier.  That is in and of itself good enough reason to have a positive outlook!


Resources:  Optimism, Over-Rated; Seligman, Learned Optimism, Schneider, S. (2001). “In search of realistic optimism.  Meaning, knowledge and warm fuzziness,”  American Psychologist, 56, 250-263.

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