The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Is Optimism Undermining America?

Optimism is not undermining America. Indeed, optimism defines America.

Optimism has never had a good name, at least among the intellectually elite. We actually know when the word “optimism” entered common parlance — with the publication of Voltaire’s (1759) Candide and the embodiment of foolish optimism in the annoying character Dr. Pangloss.

Empirical research over the past few decades showing that optimism has many benefits — for achievement, social relationships, and health — is therefore interesting and important (Peterson, 2000). Studies of optimism helped usher in the field of positive psychology by demonstrating the importance of “positive” constructs above-and-beyond the absence of “negative” constructs.

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A recent backlash is apparent, reprising the centuries-old suspicion of optimism as indicative of stupidity or denial. Both scholarly and popular discussions have questioned optimism, positive thinking, and more generally positive psychology, suggesting that they are responsible for much of what ails the modern world, including ongoing economic crises in the United States.

When I lecture about these criticisms, which of course need to be considered, I sometimes am tempted to be glib and ask “What’s the point? Are the critics urging pessimism and hopelessness on people?” I could cherry-pick quotes from the critics that seem to imply this, but that would entail taking their ideas out of context. That’s not responsible, even if the critics seem to do that to make their point.

Instead, the critics usually urge people to be realistic in their expectations about the future. That is a thoroughly reasonable suggestion in cases where there actually is a right answer, a reality against which to judge our expectations as accurate or inaccurate. So, I am optimistic that I will finish this blog entry, that I will get it posted on the Psychology Today website, and that several thousand people will read it. I am optimistic that some readers will enjoy it. Past experience tells me these are thoroughly realistic expectations.

And I am pessimistic that I will ever play in the NBA, win a Nobel Prize, or be adopted by Angelina Jolie. Those things are simply not going to happen, even if I hope that they do. If I led my life as if these things would or could happen, my stupid optimism would indeed undermine my life. If everyone leads their life as if thoroughly implausible things would happen, then our world collectively would be undermined.

So are the critics of positive thinking correct? Not exactly. The issue that is sometimes overlooked by critics of optimism is that our expectations about the future do not fall cleanly into two groups, those that are correct and those that are incorrect. There is a third and fuzzy group of expectations, those that are neither correct nor incorrect at the present moment. They become correct or incorrect only in the future, depending on how we act in the present. Optimism galvanizes activity, and optimism as I conceive it adds agency to affirmation. Positive thinking is powerful when it characterizes this third group of expectations.

On average, optimistic individuals are healthier because they take care of themselves; optimistic students earn better grades because they go to class; optimistic insurance agents sell more policies because they make cold calls; and so on. There are no guarantees, except that passivity will lead to failure in domains where activity is beneficial.

We should also be very careful about branding someone’s expectations impossible simply because they strike us as unlikely. Unrealistic does not always mean impossible. Was Christopher Columbus unrealistic when he set sail on tiny boats across the Atlantic Ocean? Was Jackie Robinson unrealistic when he wanted to be a Major League baseball player? Was Mother Teresa unrealistic when she left Albania to establish a mission of charity in India? Was Bill Gates unrealistic when he dropped out of Harvard to write software? Was Barack Obama unrealistic when he announced his Presidential candidacy? Probably yes in all cases, but we also know the rest of the stories.

Of course, these examples of optimism that paid off can be matched by other examples of optimism that did not. As the saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not data, which is why I pay more attention to the hundreds of studies that show optimism on average to be beneficial.

As I read this literature, optimism is not undermining America. Indeed, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed long ago, optimism defines America. Bless the critics, but I wish they would zero in on stupidity as a problem for all of us, or greed, or sloth, or envy, or gluttony, and not brand positive thinking a deadly sin. The world is challenging enough, and no good is served by dismissing one of its most wonderful resources.

Wishing and hoping and thinking and praying,
Planning and dreaming each night of his charms
That won't get you into his arms.

So if you're looking to find love you can share.
All you gotta do is
Hold him and kiss him and love him
And show him that you care
.

—Ani DiFranco

 

Peterson, C. (2000). The future of optimism. American Psychologist, 55, 44-55.

Voltaire, F. (1759). Candide, ou L’Optimisme. Genève: Cramer.

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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