Welcome to week 4 of The Year of Happy‘s month on optimism. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education.
As we’ve alluded to throughout the month, optimism is not the most popular of virtues in the science of happiness. Optimists are accused of being frustratingly cheerful, blind to the world’s ills, or just plain delusional.
And these criticisms shouldn’t be taken lightly. If optimism makes us careless or passive, we shouldn’t be so keen to be more optimistic. Scientists have examined these issues, and concluded that the right amount of optimism – not too extreme – will serve us best in life.
1. Problem: I think optimism is unrealistic
When people say optimism is unrealistic, they aren’t just being nay-sayers. Studies have actually found that pessimists do have a slightly more accurate view of reality: for example, in a room of flashing lightbulbs where they can push buttons that have no control over the flashes, pessimists accurately realize they have no control. Optimists think their button-pushing has at least some effect.
Does this matter? Those same pessimists are also more likely to develop depression and have worse health. They miss out on the positive benefits we discussed in Week 3. Optimistic illusions of being in control and more skillful than others may be the things that get us out of bed in the morning and keep us working toward our goals.
Although optimists may have some degree of delusion, it should be pointed out that they don’t have a monopoly on unreasonableness. Shawn Achor, author of Before Happiness and The Happiness Advantage, explains the difference between realistic and unrealistic (or “rational” and “irrational”) optimism in the below article:
In other words, anyone can be unrealistic; that isn’t just a trait of optimists. To illustrate this with a visual, Cianna Stewart (founder of The No Complaining Project) gives us a new way of looking at optimism, pessimism, realism, and delusion:
These findings have led psychologist Martin Seligman and others to argue for a kind of moderate or contextual optimism – be optimistic when you’re trying to reach a goal, cope, or lead others. Dial up the pessimism when you’re trying to assess risk or uncertainty (as in business).
Many of the critiques of optimism are better aimed at positive thinking, which has been shown to be detrimental:
2. Problem: I’m feeling pessimistic
Although most of us have an optimism bias, we also have a negativity bias, too. We may believe we’re smarter or more likely to succeed than other people, we may ignore evidence that our sunny beliefs are wrong, but we’re also specially attuned to negative information. Negative experiences leave a big imprint on our brains; we need several positive experiences to make up for a negative one. Particularly if we’re pessimistic, our mind literally zeroes in on the negative things in our environment and pays more attention to them.
Some days are worse than others, and on the bad days, distracting from or disputing our pessimistic thoughts can seem like a futile exercise. How do we shift our perspective? UC Berkeley’s Rick Hanson has two relevant articles on this topic. Make sure to read them slowly and think about how they apply to your own life – otherwise they might sound a bit fluffy or cliche:
3. Problem: My friends and family are frustrated
The Happiness Project’s Gretchen Rubin describes the clash between optimists and pessimists as the clash between a Tigger and an Eeyore. “Tensions arise when a Tigger and an Eeyore strive to convert each other. The more they try to convince each other to adopt a different perspective, the more the other resists. Tiggers fear being dragged down by the Eeyores, and Eeyores feel resentful and irritated by the Tiggers’ insistent cheer.”
Perhaps you’re familiar with this dynamic – you can’t get a spouse to follow your positive ways, or you have that friend whose optimism is enviously annoying. Rubin explains it in detail and has a host of tips for dealing with it, no matter which side you’re on:
4. Problem: Pessimism makes me happier
Maybe your attitude toward life is to prepare for the worst and lower your expectations, so you’re able to face whatever happens. There’s actually a term for this: “defensive pessimism.”
Although it can be useful in dealing with anxiety, defensive pessimism does not make us more satisfied with outcomes than optimism (according to the research). Defense pessimism was designed to be a tool, useful in certain circumstances, but using it repeatedly turns it into a way of life: a habit of looking for the bad things just in case.
Researcher Brené Brown has another term for the less deliberate form of this phenomenon: “foreboding joy.” It’s that feeling of being so happy that something bad must be about to happen – when you gaze fondly over your sleeping kids and imagine them dying, or sink into a loving embrace with your partner only to imagine them leaving. It may be an instinctual way of protecting ourselves, she writes in Daring Greatly, but it doesn’t protect us at all. One man she interviewed said:
“I used to think the best way to go through life was to expect the worst. That way, if it happened, you were prepared, and if it didn’t happen, you were pleasantly surprised. Then I was in a car accident and my wife was killed. Needless to say, expecting the worst didn’t prepare me at all. And worse, I still grieve for all of those wonderful moments we shared and that I didn’t fully enjoy. My commitment to her is to fully enjoy every moment now. I just wish she was here, now that I know how to do that.”
That might be the best argument for optimism I’ve ever heard.
Are you convinced that optimism is beneficial? Discuss this and more on the Facebook group.
Sources and further reading:
- Elaine Fox, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: How to Retrain Your Brain to Overcome Pessimism and Achieve a More Positive Outlook
- Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life