Making the Most of Optimism

Did you know that optimists are happier and more successful than pessimists?  It really does pay to cultivate your optimistic side.

I can just hear the pessimists grumbling under their breath that optimists are unrealistic and Pollyanna-ish.  It’s true.  We do tend to overdo it sometimes.   I tend to go straight to starry-eyed idealism way too quickly.  On the other hand, I contend that pessimists tend to go into the Debbie Downer too quickly, dragging down the collective energy and motivation.

What is viewed by scientists as the right balance for that optimism/pessimism spectrum is called realistic optimism.  In other words, keep your optimism within the realm of do-able to optimize your ability to move forward but in a sensible manner.

I know I need reminders of this on a daily basis as I set overly ambitious schedules and task lists for myself, and worse yet, for others.  I know that I create unnecessary stress for everyone with my over-ambitious scheduling or goals.  Here is where realistic optimism could really help improve my quality of life, relationships and even health.

Though realistic optimism has real benefits in certain situations, I counter that there is also room for unrealistic optimism, albeit at much smaller doses.  For example, do you think Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Usain Bolt, J.K. Rowling, Stephen Spielberg, and YoYo Ma always settle for realistic optimism?  How do breakthrough performances and technology occur without dreaming, risk and failure?  What fun is it to play it safe at everything we do?  Is there not room, or even a need, for ambition in the areas of our passion?

Be realistically optimistic, except for one goal in one area of your life.  For you, where and what would that be?  If you can change your corner of the world just a tiny bit, how would you do it?  What would it be?  How can you make it happen, one realistic bite at a time?

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.