Why 'Realistic Optimism' Is Your Best Positive Thinking Move
September 13, 2018
“Just think positive thoughts.”
As someone with anxiety, I’ve heard that piece of well-intended advice a few times. Or, one of its cousins: “Just don’t think about the negative.” “Can’t you just not think about bad things?”
As a worrier, it all seems a bit counterintuitive. Why would I pretend that everything is going to be all effortless rainbows and sunshine, when I’ve been around the block enough to know that’s rarely the case? But it also gives me optimistic FOMO, leaving me worried (of course)—is everyone positive thinking without me?
The answer: I'm not alone in my negative thinking tendencies. We have over 50,000 thoughts each day, and it's estimated that 70 to 80% of those thoughts are negative. We're not wired to be in the "think happy thoughts only" camp.
But it turns out, there’s a middle ground that’s actually better to aim for—one that’s not all “happy thoughts only” but still maintains hope for the best. It’s called realistic optimism—and it's so powerful, here at Shine we're renaming Positive Thinking Day (September 13) to Realistic Optimism Day.
Optimism, With a Side of Realism
Optimism isn’t just a good thing—it’s a necessary thing. It gives us the motivation and confidence we need to go after the things we seek.
But there are two ways to be an optimist: Unrealistic optimists believe good things will just happen—with less focus on their agency. While realistic optimists believe in their power to make good things happen, even through rough conditions.
“Realistic optimists...believe they will succeed, but also believe they have to make success happen—through things like effort, careful planning, persistence, and choosing the right strategies,” Heidi Grant, Ph.D., explains in the Harvard Business Review. “They recognize the need for giving serious thought to how they will deal with obstacles. This preparation only increases their confidence in their own ability to get things done.”
Basically, it’s knowing your goal, trusting it can come true, but knowing it’ll happen because of your ability to put in the work and overcome inevitable obstacles. This kind of mindset, Grant explains, is much more beneficial than being an unrealistic optimist. The key difference between the two: With realistic optimism, we believe we can succeed—but we accept that it might be tough. And that belief actually sets us up for more success.
“Believing that the road to success will be rocky leads to greater success because it forces you to take action,” she writes. “People who are confident that they will succeed, and equally confident that success won’t come easily, put in more effort, plan how they’ll deal with problems before they arise, and persist longer in the face of difficulty.”
Becoming a Realistic Optimist
So, how do you practice realistic optimism IRL? Mara Karpel, Ph.D., says it starts with getting intentional about mixing the two perspectives.
“Combine a positive attitude with an honest evaluation of the challenges you may meet along your path,” she writes for Huffington Post.
First: Recognize what you want to accomplish. Is it finishing that presentation? Strengthening your relationship with a friend or partner? Getting the kids to bed on time? Pinpoint what success would look like—and see yourself achieving it. You nailed it. You did the dang thing—just like you knew you could.
But then, as Eminem would say, snap back to reality. Think through what challenges you might meet along the way to that finish line. If you’re a worrier like me, this is probably the easiest part—but be sure those potential challenges are realistic, too. (True story: I’ve spent time imagining my computer spontaneously combusting when I’m working on a big project.)
Once you’ve pinpointed a few obstacles, you might feel a little nervous. But that’s when you bring back your optimism—instead of shooing the challenges away, think about the steps you’d take to overcome them. See yourself taking those steps. See yourself trusting your power to get through.
Then, start making moves.
At its core, what realistic optimism does is help you accept what you can and can’t control. You can’t control that job just appearing, the bus running on time, or the weather going your way on the day of the picnic. But you can control the effort you put into the job hunt. You can control your plan B when the bus doesn't show up. And you can control your mindset and attitude as you weather the unexpected storm. And you can be optimistic about your ability to handle things, come what may.
While positive thinking comes with the pressure to "think happy thoughts," I like to think realistic optimism is more "think powerful thoughts." And to me, that's much more meaningful and motivating.