When Optimistic Thinking Isn’t Enough

Written by on March 18, 2014 in Confidence, Emotional Mastery

When Optimistic Thinking Isnt EnoughCall it what you will … hope, belief, motivation, mindset or positive attitude. Choosing to have an optimistic outlook is all about expecting good things to happen in your life.

There’s no question that optimism can play a pivotal role during times of transition when you’re facing a crisis or to help you stay motivated. There is even substantial research indicating that optimistic thinking hinders the emergence of acute and chronic disease and slows its progress.

Unfortunately, there’s also a fair amount of research that indicates optimism can backfire and become a stressor on the immune system. In other words, it’s not all “power of positive thinking” or bust.

So Does Optimistic Thinking Really Work?

While optimism is consistently identified as a desirable behavior among highly resilient people, those same people will tell you that there is a vital difference between believing you will achieve your desired outcome, and believing you will achieve it easily.

Ultimately the difference between unrealistic and realistic optimism comes down to choices and expectations.

  • An unrealistic optimist believes that attitude is all that matters. That the universe will reward them simply for thinking positive thoughts, or that somehow they will be transformed overnight into the kind of person for whom obstacles cease to exist.
  • A realistic optimist also believes that positive thinking matters, but that they will succeed through effort, careful planning, persistence and choosing the right strategies. More importantly, they redefine failure so that rather than signifying the end, it simply means a new strategy or direction is required.

Of course, compulsive optimists will be only too happy to claim that imagining anything other than the best possible scenario is “being negative.”

Maybe, but consider the findings of Psychologist Gabriele Oettingen who refers to optimism as “wishful thinking.” According to her research unrealistic optimism can entice a person into mentally enjoying the benefits of having already achieved their desired result, leaving them with little motivation to take the necessary action to actually achieve that outcome. Worse yet, it can prevent a person from preparing for potential obstacles, or facing what needs to be done to deal with very real problems.

Research has also shown that overly optimistic views can cause high levels of reality distortion and lead to self-defeating behaviors, for example persisting at unachievable goals.

The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails. ~Author Unknown

Is Pessimism a More Realistic Option?

Some people choose a pessimistic attitude for their coping mechanism, even using it as a source of sardonic humor; the rationale being that if you continually expect the worse, you are apt to be pleasantly surprised. On the other hand, if you always expect the best, chances are good you’re going to be disappointed – a lot.

What exactly is a pessimistic attitude? Generally, a pessimist is defined as a person who nurtures a consistently negative attitude, expecting the worst of people and of situations. This outlook persists regardless of facts or circumstances that might indicate a more balanced or positive reality.

A pessimist relates to the “half empty glass,” ignoring the fact that the glass is also half full, believing that this is a more “realistic” approach to life.

If we wish to live effectively we will have to root out self-defeating pessimism, replacing it with a rational, active form of optimism. Becoming an effective optimist requires more of us than putting on a forced smile and telling ourselves ‘everything will work out for the best’. Living at full capacity—a capacity beyond what most of us imagine possible—asks us to go beyond superficial (“Don’t Worry, Be Happy!”) formulas to understand an intelligent form of optimism. ~Dr. Max More

The Bottom Line

Realistic optimism isn’t about lowering your standards or expectations, just making better choices. Whether you’re striving to achieve a goal or facing a challenge or setback, a positive attitude and the belief  that things will work out will surely help you on your way, just base that belief on rational thinking … like confidence in your ability to effectively plan and manage problems, while looking for opportunities to learn and grow from the experience.

Your turn. Do you view yourself as an optimist and if so what strategies do you use to maintain a positive attitude when faced with unexpected change or obstacles?

Let today be the day you give up who you’ve been for who you can become.
About Marquita Herald

Marquita Herald

Marquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.

She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.

To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living  click here.


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  1. I always believe in thinking and living without any limitations. I will agree with being realistic in knowing what can be done with what I can imagine. Yet, only one can visualize the whole picture with the right action to make anything doable.

    We have to have a positive mindset/perception and move forward knowing adjustments will be placed as we put forth activities that we find work for our advantages.

    Thank you for this amazing article. This is going to help all of us who took the time to read, and read again.
    William Amis recently posted…The Plans Of The Righteous Are Just…My Profile

  2. Yorinda Wanner says:

    Hi Marquita,
    great food for thought!

    Putting a smile face sticker on the oil light in our car will not make the car go forever without taking care of replenishing the oil.

    I used to think that ‘positive thinking’, having a positive attitude and seeing the good in people would sort out my life. I realized that unless I actually take care of the reconditioning of my neural pathways and building new ones all the positive mental attitude seems to just take the edge off.
    The subconscious self-sabotage of my inner wounded child has been subtly going on for a few years.
    This may not be the case for people who had a reasonably ‘normal’ childhood – so are we measuring in inches or centimeters? 🙂

    I always enjoy reading your posts and appreciate you sharing your wisdom!
    Love and Light
    Yorinda Wanner recently posted…Having a Good Day with Nature and BeautyMy Profile

  3. Excellent post, Marty!

    Two thoughts came to my mind while I was reading.

    First, if I am “too optimistic” without taking action, then it becomes a burden, because I beat myself up for something I see as my fault (when it may not be… I’m putting too high expectations in the wrong area).

    Second, if I am telling myself something that does not line up with my true heart beliefs, then there is a conflict. If in my heart I believe I am not worthy of whatever it is I tell myself I want, then I need to do whatever necessary to change those deep-seated beliefs before telling myself I can do it. That’s why so many people lose weight and then gain it all back again… or amass wealth, and then lose it all.
    Willena Flewelling recently posted…Victim or Victor? The Choice is Yours!My Profile

  4. Kyle Nelson says:

    Love the new website my friend, looks amazing. I enjoyed reading this blog post and made me think about one of my pet peeves personally. I can’t stand it when i get an extremely pessimistic person and say they are “realistic” because to them nothing positive can come out of anything. I agree with you 100% though, being over optimistic really won’t go far in the long-run, sure it is great in the beginning to get you going but setting realistic goals and understanding them from the beginning is the right path.
    Kyle Nelson recently posted…My Thoughts On The Success IndicatorMy Profile

    • martyherald says:

      Hey Kyle, you know it’s funny you should mention the pessimistic personality because there’s a really fascinating study I including in my book on Resilience about the positive side of pessimism and how some people use it effectively to prepare themselves for any eventuality. Of course in most cases it still comes off as a load of negativity and personally I can’t imagine living that way, but I suppose to each his own. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Sarah Arrow

    An unrealistic optimist believes that attitude is all that matters. That the universe will reward them simply for thinking positive thoughts <—- there are so many of these Marty, they think sheer belief and no action will get them where they need to go. I'm sure it must work for them, but it certainly doesn't work for me, and is a waste of energy!
    The unrealistic optimist is also hard to communicate with, and work with. Okay near impossible to work with. You need something to work to other than blind faith, something to put into action!
    Sarah Arrow recently posted…Of course you can market to everybodyMy Profile

  6. nick catricala

    This is a great article on a much needed topic that will have many of us glued to every words because sometime or another we all fall into that category of being “optimistic” and sometime we are even extra optimistic and pray that we are correct 🙂

    Believing in God help me a lot in being optimistic… many so called “Miracles” come into my life in many occasions that are to many to mention and that reinforce my belief that being optimistic is part of making the miracles a reality..

    Thanks for sharing such a great article and your powerful insights that for certain come from a lot of experience and wisdom.
    nick catricala recently posted…REVELATION or ENLIGHTENMENT…My Profile

    • martyherald says:

      Hi Nick, so glad you enjoyed the article. I don’t really believe in black and white when I comes to our beliefs, and there’s nothing wrong with believing in miracles. I think what the studies point out is it only becomes a problem when one sits back and does little or nothing to help themselves, assuming good things will automatically happen.

      • nick catricala

        Had to come back and re-read the article and your comment here… I must say again that you are correct, just sitting back and be “positive” or “optimist” is not enough.. but I am 100% certain that it is part of achieving or not achieving success in many instances…

        Just today me and a friend were discussing this same issue.. she has a similar look to it as you do.. and so after more that an hour of “discussing” we both come to the conclusion that each individual achieve success ONLY when he or she apply the mental positive attitude and also apply a strong emotional or physical effort.

        Glad you write provoking articles as this.. always hungry to learn more and different things and you sure have lots of them.. THANKS for doing what you do, it is inspiring.
        nick catricala recently posted…REVELATION or ENLIGHTENMENT…My Profile

  7. Lori Gosselin

    Hi Marty,
    This is interesting. Like Dave I never considered that being overly optimistic could make one complacent. I think I struggle more on the other end of the spectrum in not being optimistic enough. It’s true that as much as I bemoan the problems I love the challenges. At present I am seeking a core state of well-being from which to launch all the other wonderful emotions -like optimism.
    Happy to have found your porch Marty!
    Lori Gosselin recently posted…AlegriaMy Profile

    • martyherald says:

      Welcome Lori and thank you for contributing to the conversation. For many people optimism is a touchy subject that flows right into hope, faith, spirituality and religion. I on the other hand write from a practical standpoint, but in the end all that really matters is whatever you’re doing works for you and makes you happy. 🙂
      martyherald recently posted…You Are Stronger Than You ThinkMy Profile

  8. Kumar Gauraw

    Hi Marquita,
    You always come up with such an incredible topic for a great discussion!
    I classify myself as unrealistically optimistic and more so because it works for the things I want the most.
    Does it always work? No. But when it does, it is worth all the other failures and therefore, I strongly believe in miracles and a miraculous gain is what I am always after. I believe in God, expect amazing things, work hard, don’t get disappointed if it didn’t happen and get up and try again.
    So, yes, I am unrealistically optimistic 🙂

    Have a great rest of the week.

    Kumar Gauraw recently posted…10 Blogging Mistakes To Avoid When Starting Your Online JourneyMy Profile

    • martyherald says:

      So glad you enjoyed the article Kumar and thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. Clearly such subjects as optimism, hope and faith are emotionally charged and as you’ve pointed out, regardless of what the research studies say, what matters is whatever works for you. That said, reading your comment made me smile because while you may believe in miracles you clearly put a great deal of effort into achieving your dreams which is the whole point of being realistically optimistic. 🙂

  9. Hi Marquita,

    As defined by you, I fall in the category of ‘compulsive optimist’ and I have always believed that optimistic attitude changes a lot of circumstances, it even provides hope to people around us as they get a positive boost with the determination and belief of an optimist, it inspires a new spirit in them…I have seen this happen. So I would choose optimism whether it is real or unreal, I would not care! All obstacles give you way when you resolve to make a path through them and all expectations turn around to smile at your endeavours, if they are real.

    Thanks for reminding us about the power of optimism…I could only see the brighter aspect!
    Balroop Singh recently posted…Only One Way of Detachment…My Profile

    • martyherald says:

      Thanks so much for contributing to the conversation Balroop! Of course there’s nothing wrong with being enthusiastically optimistic; as I pointed out in the article, it only becomes a problem is when one bases everything on that attitude without taking action to achieve their desired results. I saw this firsthand again and again when I was coaching – which was at a time when The Secret was still so popular. Many people put all their hopes into the notion that if they just put enough mental energy and the right attitude into what they want most it would magically happen – but then took no follow up action and ended up being terribly disappointed. So if there is a goal or desired outcome involved, optimism without action = wishful thinking. Thank again for sharing!

  10. I believe optimism followed by action brings out the best. Sometimes, even when we feel as though we are thinking positive and sending out the right “vibes”, we may not get what we had planned and worked for. This it the moment in time that separates the wanna be optimist from the true optimist. A true optimist will see the situation that didn’t go as planned and ask, ok, what’s coming next? What is the better outcome that I don’t know about yet? In my experience, when I’ve worked really hard at a goal and it doesn’t come out as planned, something better is waiting in the wings. I just have to trust and be patient.

    • martyherald says:

      Welcome Victoria! I love your use of questions and couldn’t agree more with you about the value of exploring options and opportunities. 🙂 Thanks so much for taking the time to contribute to the conversation.

  11. Dave

    I find it very interesting that being overly optimistic can sometimes provide a sense of fulfillment that keeps you from actually pursuing your goal in the first place. I think that I may have actually been in this situation before 😉

    Sometimes I think I am on a see-saw, with one half of myself on the optimistic side and the other half on the pessimistic side. Which side I am on will often depend on my familiarity with the situation or subject matter at hand.

    I really like your advice on the perception of optimism in the most beneficial light. That is, make sure that you are optimistic that you have the power within you to achieve your goals. It’s more than just wishing and hoping that something will occur. It’s about being determined, persistent, and confident in what you know you are able to achieve.

    Thank you, as always, Marty. You always provide me with thought-provoking insights that inevitably carry me to a more fulfilling place 😉
    Dave recently posted…All aboardMy Profile

    • martyherald says:

      So glad you found the article worthwhile Dave. I shared with another reader that I saw this “wishful thinking” syndrome quite a lot when I was coaching. People would enthusiastically talk about their dreams and all the things they were going to accomplish, but never took action to make all those big dreams a reality. There are a few different ways to look at this and my personal form of optimism is to assume that one way or the other I will be fine and things will work out and once that notion is firmly implanted I work my butt of to make the best possible scenario a reality. 🙂

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