Can Optimism Be Bad?

Optimism and positive thinking are heavily advocated as means to not only happiness, but also to better physical and mental health. A recent article1 calls these beliefs into question. According to the authors, “…positivity is not all it is cracked up to be. Although having an upbeat attitude undoubtedly has its benefits, gains such as better health and wealth from high spirits remain largely undemonstrated. What is more, research suggests that optimism can be detrimental under certain circumstances.”

It should be appreciated that it is difficult to conduct research that does provide hard evidence that a positive attitude is beneficial. Most of the research is correlational and that can make it difficult to distinguish cause from effect. Obviously if you question a group that is healthier, happier, or more successful and rate their optimism or positivity scores against a group lacking in any of these attributes, it should not be surprising that the former group has higher ratings than the latter. It is also difficult to conduct controlled experiments on this topic. Suppose one group is given training on optimism and positive thinking and another group is not given this training and serves as a control. If the group given the training does score significantly than the control group, it could be the due to their being given special treatment, rather than the treatment it, oneself. This artifactual result is known as the Hawthorne Effect.

I think it is useful to make a distinction between the optimism/pessimism dimension, and the positive/negative thinking dimension. I think that the optimism/pessimism dimension is best regarded as a personality trait. That is, whether people see the glass as half empty or half full is basically determined by a personality trait. I tell people that I am a congenital pessimist. I definitely have a tendency to see the downside. There are benefits to being a pessimist, however. For example, pessimists have been found to be less prone to depression than were optimists after experiencing negative events such as a friend’s death. Although I need not extol the benefits of being an optimist, one obvious benefit is that optimists are more likely to persevere. It seems like most successful people have typically undergone failures, sometimes many failures, be before achieving success. Pessimists, however, having given up early, rarely achieve success.

Regardless of one’s innate disposition with respect to the optimism/pessimism dimension, I think it is important that everyone engages in both positive and negative thinking. Pessimists need to engage in positive thinking so that they will not overlook possible opportunities and will not give up prematurely in the pursuit of opportunities. If they like being miserable, fine, but positive thinking can make one happier and be more pleasant. The important point for pessimists is that they also activate the positive circuits in their brains (and if there aren’t any, to build some).

Optimists need to engage in negative thinking to keep them from pursuing foolish or unrealistic events. I remember reading about a married couple who were so energized after seeing the movie Rocky (the original, not one of the numerous sequels) that they put their entire wealth on a lottery tickets. Admittedly, this is an extreme example, but I think you get the idea, to be sure to activate the negative circuits of your brain (and if there aren’t any, to build some).

Unfortunately, positivism is oversold. I become angry when I hear someone tell a child that they can be anything they want provided they put their mind to it. While it is true that most people can probably achieve more than they think they can, a substantial contributor to success is opportunity, If opportunities are not available at the appropriate times, success is likely to be stunted. For example, the famed football coach, Vince Lombardi spent many years as an assistant coach before finally being offered the head coaching job with the Green Bay Packers. If memory serves me correctly, I believe I saw a movie2 in which Lombardi was ready to quit coaching before being offered the Packers’ job. As a result of this opportunity, he went on to become one of the most famous coaches of all time and had the Super Bowl Trophy named after him. This is a conjecture on my part, but believe that there were many potential Lombardi’s in the NFL assistant coaching ranks who never got the chance. Similarly, I think that there were potential Hall of Famers at the quarterback position, who either never were drafted, or who never got a chance at a starting position. There is nothing special about professional football. I think you can find examples in any endeavor you choose. Although you can and should prepare yourself for opportunity, you might need to realize that the opportunity might not come. And if it does not come, you should not view yourself as a failure, but rather as someone who did fulfill their existing potential.

1Lilienfeld, S.O., & Arkowitz, H. (2011). Can Positive Thinking Be Negative? Scientific American Mind, May/June, 64-65.

2I understand another movie is scheduled to come out in February 2012 with Robert DeNiro playing the role of Lombardi.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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