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Why Optimism Can Be Bad For Your Mental Health

Beware of Optimists!

Isaac suffered from what could be called "blinding optimism." He focused exclusively on the bright side of life, on all the good events. By sweeping harsh realities under the rug, he was often taken by surprise when unmistakably negative circumstances arose. He was often off guard and unprepared due to his ever-present rose-colored glasses.

Most Americans are familiar with Norman Vincent Peale and his writings on "the power of positive thinking," and more recently "The Secret" which posits "the law of attraction." Basically, this sounds like excellent advice. And indeed, Dr. Martin Seligman, a top-notch research psychologist and a former President of the American Psychological Association, has shown that "optimism" is a key element in emotional well-being.

But there is a big difference between healthy optimism and the Pollyanna pop psychology version of positive thinking. Giddy positivism advises us to look on the bright side at all times. These trite pep talks often tend to backfire and cause resentment and isolation in others.

People who play the "everything-will-be-terrific" game not only overlook real problems and issues that need to be addressed, but they prevent others from expressing grief, pain, anger, loneliness, or fears. It is difficult if not impossible to air your true feelings in the presence of one of these ever-positive thinkers. They often make others feel guilty for harboring bad feelings.

• Realistic optimists do not talk about how wonderful things are, how terrific everything will turn out, when faced with genuinely bad or unfortunate events.

Those who believe if you smile in the face of tragedies, if you keep on chanting that everything will turn out wonderfully, often end up with even bigger problems.

• Small problems, when ignored, glossed over or denied, have a way of spreading and growing into big problems.

The difference between false optimism and rational optimism can be captured by two different statements. ( 1 ) "There's nothing to be concerned about, everything will be just grand." That's false optimism. The second statement reflects realistic optimism: (2) "We've got a real mess on our hands, things don't look too good, but if we tackle it step by step, we can probably do something about it."

It is also important to realize that

• in some circumstances change cannot be achieved, and it is acceptance, not optimism or wishful thinking, that will prevent depression or endless frustration.

Remember: Think well, act well, feel well, be well!

Copyright by Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.