Realistic Optimism

by Jon on November 12

I am one of those people who rarely gets sick—maybe once or twice a year—but whenever I do, I find myself thinking about my mindset and how my thoughts could affect my mood and health. I have sometimes used illness as a way to experiment with the whole idea of “mind over matter” to see how much of a difference positive or negative thinking affects my experience. I started this experimentation when I was a young pre-teen, and I observed that I could eliminate a headache by visualizing myself taking medicine. I was effectively creating my own placebo response.

realisticoptimismYou probably already know that much of our experience in life is about perspective, and our perspectives are quite relative. For example, whether you consider yourself tall or short depends more on everyone else’s height than it does your own. You are likely rich compared to someone with no home and no food, yet you are likely poor compared to a multi-billionaire. So if someone asks you if you’re rich, your answer is just a matter of perspective. It all depends on how you decide to define “rich” in that moment.

Some perspectives are generally more useful than others. By useful, I mean they are more likely to produce an action or result to achieve some task, whether that task is taking a step forward towards some goal or just creating some kind of happy outcome. For example, the idea that “I can do this” is generally more useful than the idea of “I cannot do this.”

For every person in the world there is a unique mindset, and the possibilities of perspectives are infinite, but today I’m grouping them into four types:

  1. Blindly optimistic
  2. Realistically optimistic
  3. Realistically pessimistic
  4. Blindly pessimistic

Which is the most useful? In my experience, being “realistically optimistic” is the best. But what does that mean? Let’s go through the four types to find out.

Blindly Optimistic

In our quest to be happy and productive, we may fall into the deception of blind optimism. Barbara Ehrenreichan author best known for her study on the working poor, seems to attack optimism in her book Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. I remember hearing of some controversy when this book was released. Who could possibly be against positive thinking, after all? But after reading through her book, I found that she’s not really attacking the idea of positive thinking. She’s attacking the idea of blind positive thinking.

It’s not optimism that causes problems; it’s blind optimism or the act of “forcing” positive thoughts. Ehrenreich found it insulting when so many people were telling her to “think positively” when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, or even telling her it’s a blessing in disguise. I don’t believe the people telling her these words were trying to be annoying. I’m confident they were just trying to say something nice, like we’re all taught to. However, I sympathize with Ehrenreich’s feelings, because denying or belittling a serious situation in the name of “happy thoughts” is not happiness at all.

So, blind optimism seems fake and forced. We could say it is a form of denial when optimism is taken too far. But, at least it’s a somewhat useful denial, compared to being blindly pessimistic.

Blindly Pessimistic

While the other three perspectives can be useful in their own ways, the blindly pessimistic mindset seems to be the worst of the bunch and is almost never useful. The Blind Pessimist is likely unhappy. “Life is a bitch and then you die” might be their official philosophy. Someone who is blindly pessimistic misinterprets life in a negative way. If I’m blind, I’d rather be positively blind than negatively blind. Wouldn’t you? The blind optimist may be ignorant, but at least he’s happy.

I haven’t met many people I would describe as blindly pessimistic, and the ones I have were usually suffering from depression. The tricky thing about our mind is that it believes what it tells itself, whether it’s true or not, good or bad. That’s part of what makes depression a difficult challenge to overcome.

Realistically Pessimistic

The Realistic Pessimist acknowledges reality, and he’ll survive, but he won’t thrive. He tends to make things a bit worse than they really are. He isn’t a total downer, but he makes things harder for himself. The realistic pessimist has the concept of “struggle” ingrained into them, but at least life can be enjoyable sometimes.

Realistically Optimistic

The Realistic Optimist mindset seems the most logical and useful in my experience. This mindset aims to acknowledge the realities of life with no form of denial. The realistic optimistic may face challenges in her life, like we all do, but she does not want to give up. He may feel sad at times, but he will recover, and he is determined to enjoy life. Overall, realistic optimists look forward to the future and believe things will work out well. I think Realistic Optimism is the most useful for most people. We look at things honestly, and acknowledge our personal power and steps we can take (however small they may be) to make a difference. I think it makes the most sense, and it has always felt the most natural for me.

So, we have the classic question: is the glass half full or half empty? My opinion is that realistically it’s just a cup of water and I’m positive we can refill it. Drink up!

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Jonathan is a software engineer who loves the snow, yet is crazy enough to live in Florida. He enjoys hanging out with his awesome wife, playing video games, watching movies, sports, looking for his missing car keys and drinking hot chocolate.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Angela November 12, 2015 at 6:42 pm

Wonderful article! I think of optimism as “opportunity focus” and pessimism as “problem focus.” Both can be useful, but being stuck in either point of view can be something of a problem or opportunity.


Jon November 13, 2015 at 2:46 pm

Thanks, Angela! Glad you liked the article. I like your way of defining optimism/pessimism too. And agreed about both being useful — there are times when being pessimistic about something could actually turn out better than being optimistic… it’s often something that we realize in hindsight. It’s also true that what I might see as “realistically optimistic”, someone else might claim I’m being “blindly optimistic”. I think the difference between realistic/blind optimism is that realistic has logical reasoning and/or evidence to back it up.


Carolyn Stone November 13, 2015 at 2:47 pm

Well written post Jon. I wish you many tasty lunches in that cool lunchbox of yours.🍱
I like to think of myself as an optimistic realist– 2015 has been a rocky ride – one of ups and downs- twists and turns. I am grateful for each day and for what I have learned about myself and others.


Jon November 13, 2015 at 11:44 pm

Thanks, Carolyn. 2015 has been an up and down year with surprises for me too. 2016 should be interesting.


Carol Makowski November 13, 2015 at 5:48 pm

Very interesting post, Jon. I’m not convinced that Blindly Optimistic is so bad. One of my favorite gurus, Abraham, praises denial. One of their sayings is to “irrationally induce relief.” Of course, we don’t have to believe what someone else says. When you described realistically optimistic, I felt better because you described believing that things will work out well. And that’s what I believe. Anyway, enjoyed mulling over your thoughts here Jon. Thanks!


Jon November 13, 2015 at 11:51 pm

Hey Carol! Thanks for the comment and I’m happy to hear that you and others have enjoyed it. I haven’t read anything from Abraham Hicks yet myself, but I’ve heard many interesting ideas over the years from others who have (including some other authors on this blog).


Carol Makowski November 13, 2015 at 5:48 pm

PS — love your last two sentences!!


Tara Woodruff November 13, 2015 at 6:55 pm

I Absolutely Enjoyed this post today Jon!


Jon November 13, 2015 at 11:39 pm

Glad to hear, Tara. Thanks for reading! 🙂


Julie Syl Kalungi November 14, 2015 at 7:28 am

If we are Problem facing we find ourselves in a bad space, health, social etc and we need to be more Solution facing and Action oriented. In order to get those solutions resulting in our desired destination. Optimism falls squarely in the latter part. I’ve loved reading this post 🙂


Jon November 14, 2015 at 9:43 am

Thanks for the kind comment, Julie. Happy you liked the post. 🙂


LuAnn November 14, 2015 at 1:47 pm

awesome post ad sometimes I guess we are caught in the middle although I tend to always try and be on the side of Realistic Optimist…thanks for sharing


Jon November 14, 2015 at 6:36 pm

Thanks for checking it out, LuAnn. Yeah, I think most of us are floating somewhere around the middle on an average day.


Rose F November 16, 2015 at 8:41 am

Thanks. You’ve voiced something here that I’ve struggled to say for a long time.


Jon November 23, 2015 at 7:00 pm

Thanks, Rose. Glad to hear it. 🙂


PHC-BR November 16, 2015 at 8:53 am

This is a powerful article Sandra I believe the moment you don’t react to every situation that happens you’ll be able to control how you feel and that is what really matters. Thanks for sharing!


Jon November 23, 2015 at 7:01 pm

Well said! Thanks for the comment.


diane welburn November 16, 2015 at 9:03 am

Great article. And it is very true!


Jon November 23, 2015 at 7:01 pm

Thanks, Diane. Glad you read it… and agree! 🙂


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