Optimism only goes so far, then comes reality
After something bad happens, we’re often encouraged to “look on the bright side” or be reassured that things can “only get better.” The future is a place where everything works itself out because things can’t get any worse — or so we lead ourselves to believe.
The idea that the future is more promising than the past and the present is called the optimism bias. Elaine Fox, head of the Department of Psychology and Centre for Brain Science at the University of Essex, claims that the optimism bias has an evolutionary origin. Being able to imagine a better future, she argues, has made optimism a necessary survival mechanism.
Even when statistics suggest the likelihood of a bad outcome, individuals usually believe these statistics do not apply to them. For example, divorce rates are higher than 40 percent in the Western world, but newlyweds estimate their rate of divorce at zero percent. While it may not be the best estimate, this optimism helps newlyweds always see a future ahead of them.
According to research done by Barbara Fredrickson, who is a positive psychology researcher, positive thinking can be beneficial by improving one’s skill set. When one has negative thoughts, their brain only focuses on the negative emotions, preventing the brain from exploring other options. Meanwhile, positive emotions allow people to see more possibilities.
Fredrickson refers to the latter concept as the “broaden and build” theory, as positive emotions broaden one’s possibilities and enables one to build new skills that will be beneficial for the future. The skills gained last longer than the emotions that initiated them — one does not get the same result from negativity.
Human development and family studies junior Kelli Alcala said she thinks of herself as a pessimist. As Fredrickson’s studies suggest, Alcala has felt limited by her pessimism.
“I tend to think on the side of ‘anything that can go wrong will go wrong,’ which is something I’m trying to get better at,” Alcala said. “I think it’s added to my stress a lot and it gives you that fear of failure, which keeps you from doing anything.”
When discussing her outlook, biomedical science freshman Anam Haque said she can be pessimistic or optimistic depending on the situation.
“I wouldn’t say pessimistic, but being more realistic and aware of the consequences,” Haque said. “Being optimistic can help you be more confident.”
While positive thinking can be beneficial, it can be detrimental as well. Because optimism is encouraged and more acceptable than pessimism or any negativity in general, positivity has pervaded every aspect of our lives. Many believe that positive thinking is the solution to everything, without considering realistic expectations for what may happen.
Positivity silences those who are afraid to share their less than positive thoughts for fear others will not understand or brush off those feelings as ones that will pass.
Researcher Gabriele Oettingen argues that positive thinking and dreaming is not enough to achieve success and may hinder success if positivity discounts realism when pursuing certain goals. One needs to take into account the steps needed to achieve success.
“If you’re too optimistic, then when something does go wrong, you fall a little harder, I think,” Alcala said. “There’s definitely importance in finding a healthy balance between optimism and pessimism.”
Contrary to the belief that pessimism is unconducive to productivity, psychology professor at Wellesley College Julie Norem said that defensive pessimists — those who approach stressful situations by imagining and preparing for what could go wrong — actually perform well because they are prepared for the worst.
Imagining how to tackle potential obstacles helps manage anxiety so that it does not interfere with one’s performance. Norem said this will not make a person less anxious, but by taking more steps to prepare, one is more likely to succeed because they feel that they are in control.
“You have to put in hard work to get where you want to go; you can’t just rely on your point of view to get you where you want to be,” Haque said.
In an interview for The Atlantic, Norem said one of the drawbacks to defensive pessimism come from the reactions of others. Negative reactions from others foster feelings of incompetence.
Internal drawbacks occur when defensive pessimists lose specificity. When they begin to blow problems out of proportion, it will hinder their ability to problem solve.
Though we are constantly told to be positive and that changing our attitude will make us more successful, that is not the case. Optimism doesn’t work for everyone.
Even for those who are always positive, if it’s to the point that one is left with positive thoughts alone and no action is taken, then success cannot be achieved. Not everyone can be pessimistic either, but understanding the implications of our choices and weighing the pros and cons is necessary for success.
Positive thinking and optimism alone cannot make a person successful. Real success is concrete, not imagined.
Opinion columnist Rama Yousef is a creative writing senior and may be reached at [email protected].