Is It Possible to Be Too Optimistic?

Three questions to help you dream big without losing your grip on reality

Posted Apr 12, 2018

Winter finally appears to be over in the Northern Hemisphere (those living on the East Coast of the U.S. may have just let out an involuntary "HOORAY!"). One classic American rite of spring is Major League Baseball opening day. Last Friday, 26 of the 30 teams started their 2018 regular seasons. Since my husband and I recently moved a few blocks away from Coors Field where the Colorado Rockies play, the throngs of fans outside our front door made this opening day a tough one to miss.

If you’re a baseball fan, no matter how your team fared last week, you're likely full of optimism about the upcoming season. This is the year, you confidently conclude, that they're going to win the World Series! Of course, this will be true for one team, but the odds are rarely on our side (especially if we’re rooting for the Rockies… sigh).

This is a bit like what happens when we buy Powerball tickets—the hunch that we’ve got the winning pick makes us confident enough to plan, often in great detail, how we’ll spend the windfall. The bothersome fact is that our odds of winning are 1 in 259 million. We’re more likely to get elected president, have quintuplets, or be killed by an asteroid.

Does this mean that optimism is a bad thing? Thankfully, research shows that a positive mindset is generally a beneficial quality: optimists live happier, healthier, longer lives than pessimists. Optimism even changes our brains for the better, activating the same systems that tend to malfunction in people with depression.

However, at least 80 percent of us have a related problem. We tend to overestimate the likelihood that good things will happen to us and underestimate the likelihood of bad things. Scientists call this optimism bias, and it’s one of our most pervasive cognitive illusions.

By Christian Benseler [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Christian Benseler [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

When we let our hopes for the future override the reality of the present, we can really get ourselves into trouble. For example, entrepreneurs need a certain amount of optimism to start a business in the first place given the fact that 70 percent of startups fail within 10 years. However, research has shown that this same optimism can cause founders to ignore the problems that plague their companies.

In one study, a non-profit agency that specializes in predicting business risk assigned entrepreneurs’ business plans a grade from A to F. For the 70 percent assigned a D or F, almost half of business owners trudged ahead anyway. Many even doubled their efforts, wrongly thinking that hard work could make their non-viable businesses viable. In literally every case, it didn’t.

Fortunately, we can learn to practice the golden mean of optimism, avoiding both excess and deficiency. The secret is to embrace our aspirations for the future without letting them blind us to the reality of the present.

The next time you find yourself dreaming big, try answering three questions. First, to define your dream: What is the best-case outcome? Second, confront reality: What is the objective probability of this outcome? And finally, increase your chances of success: What, if anything, can I do to maximize the likelihood of my best-case outcome?

The secret, then, to productive optimism is to let it run loose without letting it run wild. And when we pair this positive outlook with a commitment to embrace reality, amazing things can happen.