Optimism usually is viewed as a desirable attribute, but many believe it is really only helpful if it is realistic.
Dr. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and legendary researcher in the field of optimism, discovered that optimism or pessimism lies in the way you explain the events that happen to you. Such “automatic thoughts” often cause us to assess events inaccurately and jump to erroneous conclusions.
Unrealistic optimism is defined as believing that you are more likely to experience pleasant events than is actually the case, and less likely than others to experience negative ones. It can keep you from being able to change direction when you are unable to see the trouble that lies ahead.
Pessimists tend to believe that bad situations are their fault, will always happen to them and will affect everything in their life. They often think that good situations are not caused by anything they have done, are a fluke and will not be repeated.
Optimism and pessimism operate on a continuum, of which the midpoint is realism. Realists explain events just as they are. Realistic optimists are cautiously hopeful of favorable outcomes, but they do as much as they can to obtain the desired results. The unrealistic believe it will all turn out well in the end, and do not do what is required to achieve that.
People measured as realistic optimists also tend to have other desirable traits, such as extroversion and cheerfulnessl. But non-positive thoughts and moods also are important and are certainly not always “bad.”
Different cultures vary in their level of realism. For example, the British psychologist Oliver James found that people in China are much more realistic than those in the U.S., even erring on the side of pessimism. But, he says, this does not make China an emotionally unhealthy nation. Studies suggest they are much less likely than Americans to falsely boost their self-esteem. Overall, they are more likely to take responsibility when things go wrong, and when things go right, are more likely to assume someone else should be praised.
Realistic optimism is actually a sign of and byproduct of mental health, says James. Unrealistic people include those who repress problems, insisting that everything is fine and the future is rosy, almost regardless of reality. They systematically delete negative information about themselves and their lives. They just cannot stand the bad news about life. For this they pay a heavy price, and are much more prone to feeling stressed and suffering physical illnesses, from common psychosomatic complaints such as unexplained tummy trouble and headaches to life-threatening heart attacks.
Another group of people who are unrealistically optimistic are the overly narcissistic who only are happy when they are the center of attention. They also are deceived about the rosiness of their future. But the illusions they create mean they are less capable of connecting and developing real intimacy with others, which can make them lonely and miserable. In contrast, the unrealistic pessimist is prone to chronic depression and anxiety, which brings its own set of problems.
So when it comes to optimism or pessimism, “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” is an ideal motto. To achieve that you must be honest with yourself about your usual approach to life. Discover the ways in which your past may be distorting your present. Doing this can transform your grip on the truth for the better. By far the greatest cause of the emotional disturbances that make us avoid reality is our childhood relationships with our parents. Surprisingly few people have an understanding of the true role they played in their family, let alone of the extent to which suffered early maltreatment.
Of course there are exceptions, times when it’s best not to know much about the truth in order to cope and focus on the positives. You are less likely to do well in a job interview or on a date, for example, if you concentrate too hard on your shortcomings immediately beforehand. But most of the time, there is no substitute for reality. Unless you have an accurate perception of yourself and your surroundings, how can you improve them?
References and Other Resources
James, O. They F*** You Up: How to Survive Family Life. New York: Marlowe & Co., 2005.
James, O. Britain on the Couch — Why We’re Unhappier Compared with 1950 Despite Being Richer. London: Arrow, 1998.