Is Optimism All That Good For You?

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My intention with each of these posts is that you’re challenged to interrupt the noise and routine in your life, just for a moment, to think more deeply about what really matters in life… your relationship with yourself and with others in your professional and personal life.

In the Monty Python 1979 movie Life of Brian, actor and comedian Eric Idle’s character sings “Always look on the bright side of life” … while he is being crucified.

It’s fair to make the assumption that Idle’s character was an optimist … but was he a realistic or unrealistic optimist?

I was attending a function the other day when I was surprised to hear a number of negative comments about optimists and that optimism was actually bad for you.

As I listened, it became clear that the foundation for these negative opinions about optimism was based on the view that optimism is seen to be ignoring all the troubles of the world by looking through rose-coloured glasses.

One person referred to optimism as Pollyannaism, which was referring to a character from a book titled Pollyanna, about a young girl who always looks on the bright side of life (cue the music again Mr Idle).

What Science Says About Optimism – Part 1

There are some evidence-based research findings that support these negative views about optimism.

For example, optimists might tend to think they will never get ill or ignore the signs of a possible illness or injury and therefore tend to not visit the doctor as often as they ought to.1

There is some evidence that optimists may also give up on a difficult task 2

There is also what Jim Collins wrote about in his book Good To Great regarding the ‘Stockdale Paradox’. This refers to an observation by Admiral James Stockdale reminiscing about his time as a prisoner of war and believing those who didn’t survive their imprisonment were the optimists. 3

However, these types of optimism (and their potentially negative impacts) is what researchers refer to as Unrealistic Optimism.

What Science Says About Optimism – Part 2

Realistic Optimism is a different matter and the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of all the positive impacts that realistic optimism has on our well-being.

Realistic optimism has two important elements. The first is a belief that you can succeed. The second is the belief that it will take effort and that success may not be easy.

Unrealistic optimism is hope without mindful thought nor intentional commitment to get stuff done and manage through the tough times.

Realistic Optimism is not practicing the power of positive thinking or repeating positive affirmations. In fact, the research is clear here that making positive statements to yourself has little if any impact over time … especially if you’re lacking in self-esteem. 4

And now … Stubborn Optimism

My favourite framing of Realistic Optimism comes from the former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres.

Figueres uses the term ‘Stubborn Optimism’ and defines it this way:

Stubborn Optimism is “the mindset that is necessary to transform the reality we are given into the reality we want.” It is having a “… fierce conviction that no matter how difficult, we must and we can rise to the challenge.”

Here is a summary of some other distinctions Figueres makes about the difference between Realistic (Stubborn) Optimism and Unrealistic Optimism:

  • Optimism is not blindly ignoring the realities that surround us – that’s foolishness.
  • Optimism is not a naïve faith that everything will take care of itself even if we do nothing – that’s irresponsibility.
  • Optimism is not the result of an achievement. It is the necessary input required to meeting a challenge.
  • Optimism opens the field of possibility. It drives your desire to contribute, to make a difference.
  • Optimism means to be challenged and yet hopeful at the same time.
  • Optimism cannot be a sunny day attitude.
  • Optimism is gritty, determined and relentless.
  • Optimism is a choice.

I recommend you watch her Ted Talk on Stubborn Optimism 5

So … if you think of yourself as an optimist, are you a Realistic Optimist or Unrealistic Optimist?

Or, as I’ve come to learn about myself, sometimes, depending on the context of the situation I can be a bit of both … but overall, I’m convinced more often than not, especially when faced with some of the really horrible stuff life can sometimes send our way, it is stubborn optimism that has got me through the tough times.

  1. (Weinstein, N. D. (1980). Unrealistic optimism about future life events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(5), 806-820
  2. (Aspinwall, L.G., & Brunhart, S. M. (2000). What I do know won’t hurt me: Optimism, attention to negative information, coping, and health. In J. E. Gillham (Ed.), Laws of Life Symposia Series. The science of optimism and hope: Research essays in honor of Martin E. P. Seligman (pp. 163-200). Philadelphia, PA: John Templeton Foundation Press.
  3. (Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why some companies make the leap … and others don’t. NY: Harper Business.
  4. Seligman, M. E. P. (1990). Learned Optimism: How to change your mind and your life. NY. Vintage Books (p.15).
  5. Christiana Figueres Ted Talk on Stubborn Optimism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVVW5eGiETI
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