One More Reason to Rethink the Power of Positive Thinking

In the long run, realists may be happier than optimists, an 18-year study finds.

Posted Jul 13, 2020

alphaspirit/Shutterstock
Source: alphaspirit/Shutterstock

Would you classify yourself as an optimist, a pessimist, or somewhere in between? Like most psychological traits, there's a continuum between the polar extremes of unrealistic optimism and severe pessimism. Navigating the spectrum between these two extremes and finding a reality-based middle ground that's "just right" can be like a high-wire balancing act.

A recently published 18-year study (De Meza & Dawson, 2020) reaffirms the long-term benefits of being a realist whose outlook and explanatory style lands somewhere between optimism and pessimism. This paper, "Neither an Optimist Nor a Pessimist Be: Mistaken Expectations Lower Well-Being," was published on July 6 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

As the title of this paper elucidates, realists tend to fall somewhere in the middle of the optimism/pessimism continuum; they would be classified as "neither an optimist nor a pessimist."

For this UK-based study, David de Meza of the London School of Economics and Political Science and Chris Dawson of the University of Bath investigated whether optimists, pessimists, or realists tended to have the highest long-term sense of well-being and happiness based on self-reported life satisfaction and psychological distress questionnaires. The researchers also measured the tendency of study participants to overestimate, underestimate, or realistically estimate their finances.

In a news release, the researchers describe how "mistaken expectations" often play out on the continuum between unrealistic optimism and severe pessimism: 

"For optimists, disappointment may eventually overwhelm the anticipatory feelings of expecting the best, so happiness starts to fall. For pessimists, the constant dread of expecting the worst may overtake the positive emotions from doing better than expected."

The authors also note that "plans based on inaccurate beliefs are bound to deliver worse outcomes than would rational expectations." In the short YouTube video below, Chris Dawson recaps his latest findings on how realists experience the highest degree of long-term happiness.

Severe pessimism didn't appear to be a widespread problem for the British cohort (N  = 1,601) that De Meza and Dawson followed for almost two decades. Based on their findings, the researchers speculate that over two-thirds of the British population in their study could be classified as optimists.

Notably, other recent optimism/pessimism research (below) suggests that this consistently high level of optimism might have something to do with being British. In general, people from other countries don't appear to be quite as predictably optimistic across their entire lifespan.

In light of the coronavirus disease 2019 crisis, the researchers offer some insights on how being a realist may be helpful while navigating this pandemic. "Optimists will see themselves as less susceptible to the risk of COVID-19 than others and are therefore less likely to take appropriate precautionary measures," David de Meza said in the news release. "Pessimists, on the other hand, may be tempted to never leave their houses or send their children to school again. Neither strategy seems like a suitable recipe for well-being. Realists take measured risks based on our scientific understanding of the disease."

 PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Shutterstock
Source: PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Shutterstock

How Do Optimism and Pessimism Fluctuate in Response to Life Events?

A recent international study (Chopik et al., 2020) investigated how optimism and pessimism tend to fluctuate in response to life events between the ages of 16 and 101 in three different countries. This large-scale study (N = 74,886) examined how optimism and pessimism changed across the lifespan and in response to life events for cohort samples living in the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands. These findings were published online June 30 in the Journal of Research in Personality.

Interestingly, the researchers found that for American and Dutch study participants, optimism tended to increase across younger adulthood, reach a plateau in midlife, and decrease during older adulthood. However, in the German sample, the results were inconsistent; it was impossible to predict how or why optimism and pessimism fluctuated among study participants living in Germany. "Associations between life events and changes in optimism/pessimism were inconsistent across samples," the authors concluded.

In a July 13 news release about this study, first author William Chopik of Michigan State University said that one of the most profound aspects of this research into how life events affect pessimism and optimism was the degree of people's resilience.

"We oftentimes think that the really sad or tragic things that happen in life completely alter us as people, but that's not really the case," Chopik said. "You don't fundamentally change as a result of terrible things; people diagnosed with an illness or those who go through another crisis still felt positive about the future and what life had ahead for them on the other side."

"Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise." —Alice Walker

The latest research suggests that there's a "realistic" sweet spot between being too pessimistic or too optimistic that might help to optimize one's long-term well-being and happiness. Unfortunately, when it comes to the elusive eudaimonia-inducing "Goldilocks Zone" between optimism and pessimism, the pendulum can quickly swing from being too pessimistic or too optimistic.

On the one hand, you don't want to sugarcoat every situation or act like a Pollyanna who pretends everything is hunky-dory when it's not (Waters et al., 2020). However, on the other end of the spectrum, in terms of longevity and psychological well-being, you don't want to be a hopeless and cynical pessimist who is unable to look on the bright side or identify silver linings (Lee et al., 2019).

Living by the motto, "Life sucks, then you die" (which sums up the worldview of a character in Stephen King's horror novel Pet Sematary) could actually create a self-fulfilling prophecy and shorten your lifespan. A growing body of evidence suggests that chronic pessimism may lower your odds of living a long, healthy life and that too much repetitive negative thinking (RNT) may speed up cognitive decline as we age (Marchant et al., 2020). 

As someone who struggled to find a sweet spot between optimism and pessimism as I was growing up, the first time I read the poem "Expect Nothing" by Alice Walker in high school, a light bulb went off in my head; this poem opened my eyes to the benefits of being more of a pragmatic realist and less of a pessimist.

Navigating the continuum between unrealistic optimism and severe pessimism can be tricky. Over the years, reading or reciting Alice Walker's poetry has helped me "tame wild disappointment" and stay emotionally even-keeled through the trials and tribulations of life's ups and downs. Maybe living by the words in the poem, "Expect Nothing," could help you, too? Reciting poetry may seem quirky to some. But if you find a perfect verse, such as Walker's stanza: "Wish for nothing larger than your own small heart. Or greater than a star. Tame wild disappointment with caress unmoved and cold," it's also an easy way to stay on track when you're striving to be more of a realist in your day-to-day life.

References

David de Meza and Chris Dawson. "Neither an Optimist Nor a Pessimist Be: Mistaken Expectations Lower Well-Being." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (First published online: July 06, 2020) DOI: 10.1177/0146167220934577

William J. Chopik, Jeewon Oh, Eric S. Kim, Ted Schwaba, Michael D. Krämer, David Richter, Jacqui Smith. "Changes in Optimism and Pessimism in Response to Life Events: Evidence From Three Large Panel Studies." Journal of Research in Personality (First published online: June 30, 2020) DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2020.103985