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  • Sarah Rose

The Downsides of Optimism

[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]

"It is possible to have too much of a good thing."~Aesop

Aesop (620–560 bc) was a Greek fabulist and storyteller, credited with a number of fables now collectively known as Aesop's Fables (my personal favorite is The Ant and the Grasshopper). Maybe Aesop was the first to convey the idea that too much of a good thing turns a good thing sour, but the sentiment has become widely held. Too much of anything makes that thing less special, and eventually could potentially turn a thing repulsive. Imagine if you had to eat cake every day. For a while you'd probably enjoy it, then you probably wouldn't want it, then you might be repulsed by cake altogether. I wanted to know: could the same be true of optimism? Optimism isn't tangible necessarily, and the term "blind optimism" carries a negative connotation, synonymous with carelessness, ignorance, and oblivion.

Researchers have agreed that optimism is generally really good and healthy. Optimism has been linked to everything from improved pain tolerance to increased longevity. Optimistic people live happier, healthier, longer lives than pessimists. And, having a steadily positive outlook changes our brains for the better, activating the same systems that tend to malfunction in people with depression (read more on that here, I'm not a scientist).

However, many of us are arguably overly-optimistic. About 80 percent of us overestimate the likelihood that good things will happen to us and underestimate the likelihood that bad things will happen. Scientists call this optimism bias, and it’s one of our most pervasive cognitive illusions. A few more "downsides" (if we can call them that) of optimism are listed below.

1. We All Think We're "Above Average"

Most people think we’re above average in a countless ways. Various research studies show our tendency to think we’re smarter, more popular, healthier, and even better drivers than those around us. Despite the fact that it’s statistically impossible for everyone to be above average, the vast majority of us insist that we belong belong in the top percentile. This gives us unwarranted confidence and can even result in entitlement. While self-confidence is enormously important in many aspects of life, exaggerating your skills isn’t helpful. Thinking, “I’m a great presenter,” or “My leadership skills are superior,” may actually serve as a disadvantage if your overly-inflated sense of self isn’t realistic.

2. We Overestimate Our Ability

An overly optimistic outlook can easily cross over into arrogance. If you think you know the material well, you won't study for the test, for example. Or assuming that you could quit drinking or smoking or some other equally dire habit "if you wanted to," is a fatalistic mindset. Underestimating challenges can result in being unprepared and ill-equipped. Socrates said, "The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing." Assuming ourselves to be prepared and intelligent always is an enormous disservice to ourselves and those around us.

3. We Engage in Magical Thinking

Here in Southern California, we like to talk about "manifesting" destiny, which (I think) means that our thoughts have the power to change the course of our lives and/or the course of the universe. Not to be a downer, but nobody's life has ever changed just because they thought about it changing. Positive thinking only yields positive results when it’s combined with positive behavior.

4. We Assume Things Will Go According to Plan

"Hope for the best but expect the worst," right? When we assume things will go smoothly always we leave ourselves vulnerable to be wildly disappointed, caught off guard, or susceptible to failure. Unrealistic optimism can sometimes result in overlooking challenges or ignoring warning signs. A good example of this is a business owner doubling the number of clients they take on without considering how the work will get done. Probably, some clients will be left unhappy. Things rarely just "work out" without some planning or foresight.

5. We Wear Rose Colored Glasses

While it’s nice to see the good in everyone and every opportunity, optimism should never become delusional. Sometimes we think that in order to be optimistic, we must minimize (or even deny) anything negative, even when it’s the truth. It would be healthier to realize that there are unhealthy people who will take advantage of you and companies that will try to swindle you. That's not pessimistic, it's simply true. Healthy optimism should stop short of clouding your judgement.

It might be true that overly optimistic people are not grounded in reality. Our thoughts should stem from rational thinking, but it's possible to maintain a positive and rational outlook. We can do this by developing comfort with the truth, which is a common but no popular principle of stoicism. Many Stoics, including Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Cato tell us, time and again, to "say what is right and do what is right," which requires an understanding of the truth. This is not always popular, because by stating the truth or standing up for what is right, we rebuke the status quo of going with whatever the majority is doing. It might be popular to embrace constant and delusional optimism, but it won't serve you or anyone else.

Developing comfort with the truth will help you build mental muscle, and when you're mentally stronger, you won't need to mask your pain with unrealistic affirmations or exaggerated platitudes. You won't need to "manifest" anything because if you work toward your goals and with grit, determination, and a bit of luck, you just might reach them.

P.S. Read 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do by Amy Morin, read about the link between optimism and health here, or buy some optimistic beer here.


Sarah Rose