Positive Thinking, Realistic Optimism

Michael J. Montegut, PhD & Julia Lee

Bottom of the Box, LLC

“We’ll never survive!”

“Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.”

William Goldman, The Princess Bride

We know that optimistic thinking produces more happiness long term [Peterson, Seligman, & Vaillent, 1988]. People achieve better overall results with positive thinking than with pessimistic thinking [Peterson, Maier, & Seligman, 1993]. But is there nuance to what works and what people with proven resilience tend to do? We have seen that it is better to strike a balance between realism and optimism than to be either a full-on pessimist or a power-of-positive-thinking Pollyanna.

When Michael was growing up, The Power of Positive Thinking movement was in full swing. As an early teenager, he briefly fell into the thinking that all you had to do was think it, and it would come true, but he quickly realized that this did not work. He had real challenges to overcome, like ADHD and significant illnesses, and just hoping it all away was no solution. Michael found that being optimistic did help, but he also found that he had to stay aware of the challenges and the odds that he faced.

Julia experienced significant challenges as a child. In her case, she had to stay optimistic for her younger brother that she raised. She wanted him to grow up without fear or worry. At the same time, she had to remain realistic to make sure they ate and had adequate shelter. In a way, her challenges forced her to stay openly positive. At the same time, she dealt with the hard reality of being a neglected child.

We both found our way to what psychologists today call realistic optimism. People who come to their resilience by way of dramatic challenges tend to be optimistic, but also realistic [Feldman & Kravetz, 2014]. Realistic optimism combines the best along the pessimistic to optimistic spectrum of belief and mental attitude.

As an example: The full pessimist would say, "This can't be done. It has never been done." The absolute optimist would say, "I can do this because I know I can. I simply have to believe really hard!" The realistic optimist says, "I know this is going to be difficult. Still, I believe that I can do this. I may need to try different approaches, but I believe I'll figure it out, I'm particularly hopeful of this new approach."

Cultivating an attitude that maintains positivity with careful attention to the reality of the situation, takes courage. However, it is worth it because this drives one toward a stronger optimism. Julia and Michael have each found that acknowledging reality and still staying hopeful have given us both reserves of optimism. We also cultivated a more exceptional ability to see the light at the end of the tunnel, the silver lining to the dark clouds. It has also helped each of us to be ok with some things not working out and more willing to look for workarounds and to persevere without permanent discouragement at failure.

Becoming more optimistic in life involves a variety of exercises and changes in thinking. One of the aspects of realistic optimism that we both came to embrace is not letting the possibility of failure lead us to worry about disappointment. Some people claim to be realistically optimistic because they consider all possible adverse outcomes of action solely to prepare for disappointment. Such thinking is not realistic optimism, but rather a pessimism of the worst cast. Such negativity leads one to question one's ability to handle disappointments just as one accepts those disappointments before they even occur.

In the Bottom of the Box Bounce workshop, we lead participants through exercises to show them how to embrace and engage realistic optimism while avoiding the pitfalls of pessimistic thinking. This change in thinking has made an enormous difference in both our lives, and we are optimistic that it will do the same for you.

Feldman, D. B., & Kravetz, L. D. (2014). Supersurvivors: The surprising link between suffering and success. New York, N.Y.: HarperWave/HarperCollins.

Peale, N. V. (1952). The power of positive thinking. New York: Peale Center for Christian Living.

Peterson, C., Maier, S. F., & Seligmann, M. E. P. (1993). Learned Helplessness: A theory for the age of personal control. New York: Oxford University Press.

Peterson, C., Seligman, M. E. P., & Vaillant, G. E. (1988). Pessimistic explanatory style is a risk factor for physical illness: A thirty-five-year longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 23-27.