Myths and Facts about Optimism

Myths and Facts about Optimism

March 3, 2021
Optimism is not about providing a recipe for self deception. The world can be a horrible, cruel place and at the same time it can be wonderful and abundant. These are both truths. There is not a halfway point, there is only choosing which truth to put in your personal foreground. - Lee Ross

Many people think about Optimism as something which is “unrealistically positive”. Until I read about Optimism from a psychological perspective, I, too, had many misconceptions about Optimism. Here are some of the most common myths about Optimism and debunking them.

Myth 1 - Optimism Breaks your Contact with Reality

When things go wrong, our main focus is on what is urgent and alarming, which is mostly the negative aspect. When we fail at something or when things do not go according to what we have planned, we notice the negative and most of the time, we overestimate its impact. We engage in overthinking about the situation. This, in turn, causes us more harm as we take more time to adjust to the situation and sometimes, we cannot think of a way out. Our focus narrows down to the one thing that went wrong. Stress hormones like cortisol are released. They lead to the fight-or-flight response. When you think what has happened is terrible and that there is no way out of this, you tend to give up trying. When you lose your motivation to try, and give up, you stand no chance of finding a solution.

What we need at that moment is to understand and quickly adapt to the situation and try to find a solution. Adopting a negative mindset will not enable you to find a way out. Optimism can help you do exactly that. To find a solution, you need to first believe that there is a solution. You need to believe that things can change and that whatever is happening is temporary.

“Pessimistic labels lead to passivity, whereas optimistic ones lead to attempts to change”, says Martin Seligman.

Optimism is necessary. It gives you hope that you can survive this, it makes you think about what are (still) the good aspects in a difficult situation. When you are optimistic you think about how bad it could have been and feel relief that at least the worse did not happen.

Optimism does not really break your contact with reality, it shows you that there is a different perspective to all this. More than anything Optimism motivates you to take action instead of freezing thinking that this situation could never change.

Myth 2 - Optimism is Unrealistic Thinking

There are always two sides to a coin. There is something bad happening and at the same time there are also many good things taking place.  Which reality we focus on depends on us. If we are completely honest with ourselves, there are always more good things happening in our life than bad ones. Most of the time, we fail to appreciate the good in our life as our main focus is on the alarming issues or negative things.

“The optimist believes that bad events have specific causes, while good events will enhance everything he does; the pessimist believes that bad events have universal causes and that good events are caused by specific factors”, says Martin Seligman.

Optimism is not about imagining what is unreal or simply believing that everything will work out fine without any conscious effort on your part.  Optimism in a scientific way or, in a psychological context, is about thinking about negative events as temporary and external;  and about positive events as permanent and internal.

Now you might be wondering what if this is not always the case? What if positive events are temporary?

As I mentioned earlier, there are many positive events in a day that go unnoticed. It could be the perfect cup of coffee you had in the morning or it could be your friend calling you to check on you or it could be someone saying something kind to you on a bad day. These seem like little positive things we do not focus on.

On the other hand, even if the negative event is temporary, sometimes we are so irritated or stressed that we think of it as permanent and cause ourselves more pain. It is a common observation that when something good happens, some people attribute it to ‘luck’ or something external; but when something bad happens, even if it is not due to their mistake, they take the blame or start overthinking. When you think about the causes of negative events as temporary and external you are willing to move forward and try to make things better. Since you believe that there is still hope and you can still try to make things better, you are more likely to do so.

I have been studying optimists and pessimists for the past twenty-five years. 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 optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks in this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.

Myth 3 - Optimism is Genetic and Stable Throughout Life

Yes, Optimism is genetic. But this does not mean the state of mind is stable throughout life. There is also a concept called neuroplasticity. Our brain is plastic. It can change. When we form new habits, our neurons form different neural pathways which get strengthen through repetition.

This means even if someone is not "born" optimistic or has a natural inclination towards pessimism, he or she can still work on being optimistic.

To become more optimistic, one needs to practise positive thoughts consistently. This is how the neural pathways will be formed over a period of time and optimism will become a habit.

Again, Martin Seligman has a suggestion for us here: When things go wrong, think and write about what is the worst case scenario possible. Then write about what is the best case scenario possible. Then write about which is the more realistic outcome. Chances are, the realistic outcome will be far from the worst possible outcome. This is how we realise how much we are overthinking. Realistic thinking is not wishful thinking. Optimism makes you believe that you have the strength to make things better and that things could be better. Maybe it is just a matter of time before your efforts pay off.

Facts about Optimism

Here are some facts about optimists:

  1. Optimists tend to live longer than pessimists.  Researchers have found that learned helplessness weakens the immune system. Optimists are less likely to experience learned helplessness as they are less likely to give up easily. Hence, they are more likely to have better immune defences. They are also better at handling stress and this tends to contribute to longevity.
  2. Optimists are more willing to take negative feedback constructively. Aspinwall and Brunhart conducted experiments and found that optimists are in fact true realists. They found that optimists are more willing than pessimists to receive negative feedback about their performance and to absorb bad news about their health and to raise difficult issues in their personal relationships. According to their research,  "realistic optimism is an honest recognition that there may be opportunities for positive growth or learning experience in even the most difficult situations”.
  3. Optimists are more successful at the workplace. They tend to persist harder when encountered with setbacks. They also tend to possess greater levels of social support.

References -

1. Seligman, M. (1998). Learned optimism. New York: Pocket Books.

2. Aspinwall, L. & Brunhart, S. M. (1996). Distinguishing Optimism from Denial: Optimistic Beliefs Predict Attention to Health Threats. Social Psychology Bulletin.

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