We are often encouraged to look on the bright side, and at times we might even find ourselves avoiding those who see the glass as half empty – pessimists just aren’t all that much fun to be around. Energy and enthusiasm are contagious and can buoy us up; equally, negativity can deflate, infect or simply irritate.
Studies demonstrate that there’s more to being upbeat than popularity: according to researchers, optimistic people tend to live longer and are less likely to experience mental health issues. A positive mental attitude has been linked to boosted immunity, better cardiovascular health and even heightened resistance to the common cold. It’s often credited, too, with helping people to find the strength to battle against various life-threatening illnesses.
With so much in favour of optimism, it’s tempting to think that having it in boundless quantities is something to be desired but, surprisingly, this isn’t the case. It turns out, optimism is best when tempered with other qualities: not negativity, as such, but realism, clear-sightedness and even, at times, a touch of scepticism and suspicion.
Life contains pitfalls and negatives: a refusal to acknowledge these is less positivity and more foolhardiness. A blind optimist, for example, may go on an online date in the starry-eyed belief that this one will be the one – and not think to let a friend know where they plan to be, or have a get-out plan if the date turns out to be awkwardly dull. A realist may be filled with fluttery excitement, but have a couple of safety mechanisms built into their plans. Someone armed with optimism and endless self-belief may bound carelessly into an interview situation, sure of getting of the job; someone else may feel a sense of confidence and hopefulness, which is bolstered by having done some preparation.
The same may be said of health: taking the risk of illness seriously isn’t necessarily hypochondria, and ignoring it isn’t optimism, or at least not in a positive sense.
When a positive attitude becomes a sense of invulnerability, it can spill over into recklessness. It may be true that nine times out of 10 nothing bad will happen, but it’s good sense, not misery-mindedness, to be mindful of that one time and to proactively guard against it. “Think about what you will do if things don’t pan out,” says Jessica Chivers, coaching psychologist, author and CEO and founder of The Talent Keeper Specialists. “It’s fine to believe that they probably will, but it’s also important to factor in some behavioural flexibility.”
There can be an element of rigidity to blind optimism, an unwillingness to modify approaches in the face of common sense and contrary evidence. In a fable, we might imagine a high wall, obstructing access to unimaginable treasures. Of three people, one may wail ‘It’s hopeless’, while another may repeatedly attempt to leap over the wall, despite falling each time. A third, we imagine, would start looking for materials with which to fashion a ladder.
We all like to be right, but even an optimist needs to be open to trying a different tack in the face of contrary evidence: “In order to learn and grow, humans need to assimilate new information, consider alternatives and explore various options,” says Jessica. “Determinedly clinging to an already-held opinion, or refusing to countenance alternative views, hinders personal development and the ability to make the most of future opportunities. We need to be open to alternatives, rather than rigidly clinging to a line of argument or a situation simply because it’s what we’ve invested in.”
It’s also worth noting that considering a range of possibilities doesn’t make you a pessimist – you don’t have to dwell on less positive outcomes, but nor does it make sense to dazzle the beam of our optimistic smile so brightly that we’re blinded to them. Unfortunately, around 42 percent of UK marriages end in divorce and around 60 percent of new businesses close within the first three years: being aware that things can go wrong gives us the opportunity to plan for, and respond to, difficulties.
This applies to daily life as well the ‘bigger’ things: we all need to leave a margin for error, whether it’s with a grocery budget, a train timetable or the number of tiles you need to revamp a bathroom! If we expect nothing but best-case outcomes, without ever recognising or mentally preparing for the possibility of setbacks, those setbacks can be much tougher to process – if, in fact, they are processed at all. “An important part of developing resilience is experiencing, reflecting upon and coming back from pitfalls,” says Jessica. “Instead of focusing only on the expected outcome, when we look at what each situation actually yields there is insight to be gained from every experience, which arms us for better outcomes in the future.”
Sometimes, it’s not just our own disappointment that comes into play: there’s also the disappointment of others to contend with. As humans, not everyone will always approve of what we do – and sometimes others will have a valid point. Taking the feedback and viewpoints of others on board is another growth-affirming essential. It’s worth noting, though, that incredibly positive people are seductively magnetic; they can sweep us up in the force of their enthusiasm – yet, because of their inability or refusal to acknowledge lows, they may lack empathy when expected outcomes aren’t delivered. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why so many of us report feeling depleted by social media which, with its insistence that ‘we can do it’, can sometimes feel like a relentlessly positive hell in which unicorns and rainbows reign supreme.
There is a fine line between inspiration and overwhelm: how useful can blanket exhortations really be, especially when splashed across everything from pillows to tank tops? Positivity can become empty, and encouragement – ‘You’ve got this!’ – reduced to a strapline when given without any genuine insight into a situation. Knowing that someone believes in you is one thing; being brushed off with a slogan is another.
For our thinking to be truly and beneficially optimistic, it needs to take into account surrounding factors. Otherwise, it’s like a neon sign on a boutique gym wall – shiny, attractive, instantly compelling but, ultimately, liable to burn out.
Want to learn more about optimism and positive thinking? Find out how to learn to love yourself and feel happier, why celebrating small wins can help you to feel motivated and how to develop self-belief and build your confidence.
How to stop being a blind optimist
How can you be an optimist and a realist at the same time? Psychologist Jessica Chivers shares her top tips…
Build some wiggle room into plans, not in the belief that things will definitely go wrong, but in the spirit of acknowledging that they could. Understand that there’s a difference between planning for the worst and expecting the worst.
Evaluate situations honestly. Seek the opinions of others and take their thoughts on board.
Work on your self-belief
Believe that you will succeed, with the awareness that success doesn’t just ‘happen’ – your own planning, strategies and persistence need to be factored into your success outlook.
It’s fine to worry sometimes
It’s fine to harbour reservations and worry about obstacles. See the ability to do this as a positive, rather than a negative, as it’s by preparing for the possibility of setbacks that a positive outcome becomes far more likely.
Focus on the journey not the destination
Rather than focussing on success, focus on the steps you’ll need to take in order to make success happen.
About Jess Chivers
Coaching psychologist, author and CEO, Jessica is passionate about wellbeing, using her skills to help people flourish in both the world of work and at home. Follow her on Twitter @jessicachivers.
This article was first published in In The Moment Magazine issue 33. Featured image by Unsplash/Valentin Lacoste.