The Happiness Advantage

How Happiness Fuels Performance at Work, Home and School

Are You an Irrational Optimist?

Why positivity gets a bad name

After giving a lecture at a large tech company, I got into a cab bound for the airport along with one of the attendees. As I searched for my seatbelt in the bottomless crevice of the back seat, I noticed that my fellow passenger was not wearing his seatbelt. I said something clever like "Afraid of seatbelts?" and he replied, "Nope, I'm an optimist."

That's not optimism. That's insanity. Optimism is good for many things, but it will definitely not keep other cars from hitting you, nor keep you from flying through the windshield. That is irrational optimism.

In The Happiness Advantage, I define rational optimism as "a realistic assessment of the present, while maintaining a belief that our behavior will eventually create a better reality." This is the type of leadership we want to develop at our companies and reward in the political sphere.

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Unfortunately, most people do not distinguish between rational and irrational optimism. As a result, we have three fundamental misunderstandings about the role optimism plays at work.

First, "you're being an optimist" should not be an insult. What we should be saying is "you're an irrational optimist!" We are trying to say that person has a warped vision of reality, which is based on desire, not how things actually are. And that definitely should be an insult. Irrational optimism is why financial bubbles form, why we buy homes we can't afford, and why we prematurely put up banners that say "mission accomplished." Irrational optimists attempt to put on rose-colored glasses first, and therefore even their initial steps are Pollyannaish and flawed. You can't sugarcoat the present and still make good decisions for the future.

You probably know people who are irritatingly optimistic. That guy who talks about how great the weather is while people are being fired, or the pilot who seems chipper as she reports another hour delay on the tarmac, or the person who says "don't worry, be happy" when he shows up an hour late to pick you up at the airport. Don't be that guy.  We find ourselves wanting to pop their bubbles because they affront our conception of reality.

None of this is the type of rational optimism we are referring to in positive psychology research. If people find you to be annoyingly cheerful, don't lose the optimism. Try today to first communicate that you recognize the existence and scope of a problem, then proceed to communicate your gratitude or hope that things will change. This approach will help other people to accept your mindset as both palatable and authentic.

Second, "I'm not a pessimist nor an optimist, I'm a realist" is a nonsensical statement. Both optimists and pessimists can make realistic assessments of the present. The difference between an optimist and a pessimist is how they then deal with the reality they perceive. According to researchers like Martin Seligman, pessimists see problems as "permanent and pervasive." Optimists see the problems, but they perceive them as "local and temporary." In other words, the problem is only one part of reality, and there are lots of other good things going on in other domains of our life. And if we continue to believe our behavior matters, we believe this too shall pass.

Third, the idea "it's good to have pessimists so we know what the problems are" is false. I've heard business leaders try to make a case that their pessimism was evolutionarily selected. But remember, both optimists and pessimists see the approaching saber-tooth tiger; there is just a difference in opinion about whether it can be dealt with. Some well-intentioned writers have railed against positive psychology because they mistakenly assume that optimism means turning a blind eye to injustice or ignoring loss. Only irrational optimists overlook problems and think that reality has no bearing upon the future. Rational optimists see problems, but unlike pessimists, they think they can do something about them.

On a related note, I have encountered a couple people who have read books like "The Secret" and erroneously become irrational optimists. They start to believe that mindset is all that matters. Rational optimists believe that mindset matters, but they also recognize that reality is part of the formula. You must change reality, not just wish it away.

Pessimism causes paralysis. Irrational optimism causes delusion. Only rational optimism allows us to actively confront the injustices and ills in society. Rational optimists see the tragedy in Japan, or understand the difficulty in treating breast cancer, or recognize the racial injustices in our educational system...but they are also the ones who search for ways to help the survivors, or believe a cure can be found, or continue to work to invent a better system.

To read more about how to become a rational optimist, check out Part 1 in The Happiness Advantage.

Shawn Achor is an expert on human potential and the author of The Happiness Advantage.


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