Realistic Optimism

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Over the last couple decades, positive psychology has touted many benefits of being optimistic, perhaps proclaiming more than what optimism can provide. Maybe I’m pessimistic. Like most pessimist, I prefer being called a realist. Research provides an abundance of support for being high on optimism. Scientific findings are the malleable fodder that life coaches, wellness advocates, and motivational speakers run with, magnifying specific findings into ginormous, all-encompassing wonderfulness. The well-being market is fueled with billions of dollars. We want happiness and spend precious money to get it. Marketing geniuses create products that exploit these vulnerabilities, promising roses to those planting dandelions.  However, like other psychological concepts, optimism is complex and has some notable tradeoffs. We must remain balanced, employing a realistic optimism.

​Optimism painted in broad strokes misses significant limitations (and even harms) that lurk in unhealthy expectations, lurching from the darkness, harming the unsuspecting unrealistic dreamer. Early pioneers in positive thinking tickled our hopeful fancies with books that still sit on the top of “must read” lists. Napoleon Hill published Think and Grow Rich in 1937. Norman Vincent Peale is known for his best seller The Power of Positive Thinking.

Optimism is prime for marketing (See Roses are Red or Five Minutes a Day). First, above all, hope in a brighter future feels good. And we all want to feel good—well, most of us do. Many self-help enthusiasts and professional therapists prescribe positive thinking to promote happiness—and it works. Optimism adaptively squashes anxiety. Research has linked optimism to everything from a longer lifespan, better sleep, and lower risk of disease.

Optimism Alone Is Not the Answer

Before we jump on the positive thinking bandwagon, blindly accepting optimism as the ultimate cure for gloom and the motivational spark for success, we must pause to consider a few notable cracks in this otherwise magnificent armor.

Optimism is natural. We have an optimistic bias. Scientific studies consistently find that majority (about 80%) of society display an optimistic bias (Sharot, 2011). Basically, we expect better futures than what actually occurs. Believing doesn’t naturally materialize. We often imagine grandness but experience blandness. Our beliefs don’t automatically receive respect from a kind, bountiful universe. Optimism blesses in other subtle ways.

​​In the 1950’s, Leon Festinger introduced cognitive dissonance theory (for more see: Cognitive Dissonance). Basically, we seek psychological consistency. A discrepancy between beliefs and realities creates a chasm, a disruption in the mind, needing reconciliation. In unrealistic optimism, our belief in a grand future collides with the typical experience of ordinariness, creating disappointment and demanding reconciliation. Perhaps, a pessimistic approach would prevent the dissonance and the associated disappointment.

English novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy wrote, “pessimism is, in brief, playing the sure game. You cannot lose at it; you may gain. It is the only view of life in which you can never be disappointed.” Norman Vincent Peale, one of the early positive thinking ambassadors, would scoff at such thinking. He famously taught, “shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Certainly, in the long run, I would rather aim for the moon, miss, landing on the stars than aim for a pile of dung and hit my target.

“Realistic optimists believe that they can succeed, which encourages them to try, and they know that persistent effort is the only way to succeed, so they work very hard.” 

~Chris Loper | Becoming Better

Optimism and Complexity

Theoretical debates are entertaining but ignore the complexity. There are many targets between the moon and the pile of refuse. It’s not one or the other. Generalized optimism in a grand future adjusts with experience. Optimistic expectations seldom have immediate feedback, challenging intrinsic hope.

​The optimistic dreams of a seventeen year old kid adjust as he or she ages. Unless the youngster is part of a longitudinal study, recording youthful optimistic expectations and comparing them with what actually occurs thirty years later, the adjustments typically go unnoticed, and don’t generate dissonance. We land on the stars and appreciate the success, forgetting we were aiming for the moon.

​Extreme traumatic events are the exception, not allowing time for incremental adjustments. Tragedy swiftly shatters optimistic dreams, demanding an immediate reconciliation (see Post-Traumatic Growth). These horrific events impact wellness with enough psychological umph to shatter core optimistic assumptions (2002, Janoff-Bulman).

So does optimism have a purpose, or is it just a cuddly blanket, soothing anxiousness over uncertainty? Researchers have examined this question. Optimism does influence behavior; but not always for the better.

​Chris Dawson and David De Meza recently published research tracking 1601 subjects over an eighteen year period, comparing optimistic and pessimistic bias of finances on overall well-being. They reported, “our main finding it is that not just outcomes that matter but also expectations. Other things being equal, overestimating outcomes and underestimating them are both associated with lower wellbeing than getting expectations about right. Realist do best” (2020a).

​”But there are two ways to be an optimist: Unrealistic optimists believe good things will just happen—with less focus on their agency. While realistic optimists believe in their power to make good things happen, even through rough conditions.” 

~Haley Goldberg  | The Shine

Unrealistic Optimism and  Wellbeing

Both unrealistic optimism and overly pessimistic attitudes impact wellbeing. However, they draw from wellness in different ways. Using COVID-19 as an example, Dawson and De Meza explain, “optimist see themselves as less susceptible to the risk of COVID-19 than others and are therefore less likely to take appropriate precautionary measures. Pessimists, on the other hand, may never leave their houses. . .” In this case, the optimist heightens their risk of contracting an unnecessary illness, while the pessimist suffers from anxiety and self-imposed restrictions.

​​Sandra Schneider Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida, wrote, “those who present an optimistic assessment of their emotional state by denying their negative emotions, even to themselves, tend to have significantly stronger physiological reactions to stress than those who are more realistic about their negative emotions” (2001).

​”​In fact, not only is visualizing “effortless success” unhelpful, it is disastrous. This is good advice to give only if you are trying to sabotage the recipient. It is a recipe for failure. And no, I’m not overstating it.” 

~Heidi Grant  |  Harvard Business Review

Realistic Optimism and Anxiety Relief

Optimistic beliefs are adaptive, relieving anxiety. We fret about what might happen. As Mark Twain aptly wrote, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” Yet, post fact, it’s difficult to determine which nasties were avoided because of preparation. When something doesn’t happen it negatively reinforces our worrying. The extensive worrying over contracting a virus may protect against the nasty transmission; and then again, many people don’t worry and, also, don’t get ill.

There is tremendous benefit to anticipating potential risks, losses, embarrassments, or disasters and responding defensively. Realistic ruminations provide information for maximizing choices and conserving limited resources. Some costs of haphazard, present-focused living are devastating. Several studies found that overly optimistic entrepreneurs lose a great deal of money on businesses that fail (Tenney, Logg, & Moore, 2015). The cost of losing a life investment can be large, severely impacting wellness for several years. In business, optimistic forecasting impacts immediate decisions. If we mitigate optimism with hard facts, our realistic optimism will benefit while not allowing drifting into magical ungrounded thinking.

​Amanda Dillard, Amanda Midboe, and William Klein discovered that unrealistic optimism about problems with alcohol among college students predicted more negative alcohol related events (2009). Unrealistic optimistic beliefs discourage risk reduction behavior. Those displaying unrealistically optimistic expectations were uninterested in risk assessment feedback and therefore were more vulnerable to future problems.

Books on Realistic Optimism

Realistic Optimism and Explanatory Style

Martin Seligman preached a different brand of optimism. His research mostly focused on explanatory styles. Instead of an optimistic view of the future, he concentrated on optimistic explanations of events that already occurred. In the introduction to his book Learned Optimism, he wrote, “The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimist. . . tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that it causes are confined to this one case. . . (and) believe defeat is not their fault. . .” (2006).

The Seligman optimist displayed more persistence. This is helpful when persistence pays off in a worthy cause; however, persistence multiplies costs, which is damaging when chasing an unreachable goal.  Another concern with Seligman’s optimistic explanatory style is sometimes failure is our fault. The optimistic explanatory style that protects the ego by blaming someone or something else has its own social repercussions.

Broaden and Build Theory and Realistic Optimism

Another adaptive quality of optimism comes from Barbara Fredrickson broaden and build theory which proposes that positive affect “prompts individuals to engage with their environment, and partake in activities, many of which are adaptive for the individual. . .” (2001). When overly pessimistic, the world becomes frightening. We retract. We protect. Like the biblical parable, we take our one talent and bury it in the ground instead of investing it to increase our rewards.

Paul Dolan observed in his book on happiness that, “we should expect the best and have a contingency plan for the worst” (2015). A common stumbling for those recovering from addiction is abstinence violation effect. Alan Marlatt and Dennis Donovan warn that lack of contingency planning for lapses may lead to full blown relapses (2007).

​The optimistic thought that abstinence will go without any difficulty leaves hopeful subjects devastated when they fail, consumed in guilt, they lose the necessary self-esteem to rebound from the momentary lapse and continue successfully with recovery. The unrealistic optimistic forecast invites a sense of powerlessness when unplanned hardship intervenes. Subjects submit to failure and helplessness (See Learned Helplessness).

What is Realism?

If we should tame our optimistic assessments with reality, an essential question to ask is “what is real?” When we speak of reality, we assume that we can accurately come to know reality as a single truth. We envision reality as an exact knowable state. However, such simplicity in most situations does not exist. The outside facts need interpreting against our background of knowledge and predictions of meaning.

​For example, you are out for a walk and an unleashed dog lunges towards you growling. The reality is “an unleashed dog is lunging towards you.” Any prediction of what the dogs behavior means, and any reaction is based on an interpretation of the dogs actions. These interpretations and predictions can be optimistic or pessimistic. However, the predictions should be constrained by reality. An optimistic prediction of the dogs intention may lead to being bit.

Schneider explains, “a person is realistic to the extent that his or her actions are sensitive to experienced contingencies in the environment and are guided by a coherent value system.” She continues, ” being realistic also requires negotiating the uncertainty and lack of specificity that is a part of the environment” (2001).

Beholden to Facts

Realistic optimism doesn’t ignore the basic facts, nor does it dismiss experiential knowledge as to what those facts mean. Accordingly, we shouldn’t ignore the dogs aggressive behavior nor the pessimistic interpretation that unless I quickly react the dog will bite.

It has been argued that reality is not only the information present in the environment but, also, the meaning of that information. These meanings are fuzzy, without an exact definable truth. Here optimism can influence interpretations and still remain grounded in the reality of the environment.

Schneider helps us out again with this clarifying statement, “realistic optimism includes all of the optimistic processes that can be shown to operate within the constraints of fuzzy reality” (2001, p. 253).

Optimism Timing (Cost-Benefit Analysis)

​Kate Sweeny and James Shepperd suggest the benefits of optimism depend on timing (2010). Present coping must be considered against potential downstream costs. Optimism produces positive affect early but potential harm later, while deliberate considerations guarantees unpleasantness in the present but potentially avoids harm in the future. Sweeny and Shepperd explored students’ (optimistic or pessimistic) expectations immediately before receiving tests results. They found that “at the moment of truth the affective costs of positive expectations outweighed the benefits” (2010).

We are, again, left with complexity. Optimism benefits the positive thinker as an adaptive response to overwhelming emotions, especially with anxiety over uncertain futures. Heavy doses of anxiety have deleterious effects on health and wellbeing.

​Optimism is certainly a candidate for lightening the cognitive load and cultivating other positive emotions that according to Fredrickson is essential for continued development. Seligman adds that optimistic explanations are essential when negative events occur, preventing a devastating hell of helplessness, such as experienced in the abstinence violation effect.

In the end, optimism is much of what science and researchers claim it to be. We can enjoy the mediating influence of optimism without significant harm if we reel in the unrealistic dreams, moderating them with a healthy dose of reality. Instead of dreaming of the joys of success, perhaps, our optimistic vision should be focused on our ability to arise above the interrupting events. An optimistic bias of our self-efficacy to surmount challenges. We prepare for the inevitable obstacles with moderate contingency planning, accepting our fallibility, but trusting in our strength and resolve.

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C. Dawson, D. De Meza (2020a). Why realism is the key to wellbeing – new research. 

C. Dawson, D. De Meza (2020b). Neither an Optimist nor a Pessimist Be: Mistaken Expectations Lower Wellbeing.

Dillard, A., Midboe, A., & Klein, W. (2009). The Dark Side of Optimism: Unrealistic Optimism About Problems With Alcohol Predicts Subsequent Negative Event Experiences. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(11), 1540-1550.

Dolan, P. (2015). Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think. Plume; Reprint edition

Fredrickson, B. (2001). The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226.

Janoff-Bulman, R. (2002). Shattered Assumptions (Towards a New Psychology of Trauma).

Marlatt, G. A., Donavan, D. M.  (2007). Relapse Prevention, Second Edition: Maintenance Strategies in the Treatment of Addictive Behaviors . The Guilford Press; 2nd edition

Hill, N. (2005). Think and Grow Rich.

​Peale, N. V. (2003) The Power of Positive Thinking

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006) Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

Sharot, T. (2011). The Optimism Bias. Time, 177(23), 40, 46-44, 46.

Schneider, Sandra (2001). In Search of Realistic Optimism. American Psychologist, 56(3), 250-263.

Sweeny, K., & Shepperd, J. (2010). The Costs of Optimism and the Benefits of Pessimism. Emotion, 10(5), 750-753.

Tenney, E., Logg, J., & Moore, D. (2015). (Too) Optimistic About Optimism: The Belief That Optimism Improves Performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(3), 377-399.

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