“When Dr. Fauci said 12 to 18 months, I thought that was ridiculously optimistic,” says Dr. Paul Offit, an expert in infectious diseases and immunology. What he’s referring to here is the ambitious timeline of developing a vaccine for COVID-19. Optimism is generally taken as a positive trait. In this case, Dr. Offit uses it as a synonym for unrealistic or perhaps even delusional. He’s got a reason to do so, though: Vaccine development typically takes at least 8 years!
We tend to think of optimism as a good thing. Keeping a positive mindset is often encouraged and seen as a way of leading a happy life. Optimism can, however, foster careless decisions, like entering a test full of confidence even though you didn’t study for it, for example.
Is optimism a useful tool for us? Is it worth to harbour ‘good vibes’ when there’s a risk of making bad choices? The answer (as usual) depends on the context and the kind of optimism we’re talking about. We’ll explain more below.
What is optimism?
There are two main approaches to defining optimism. The first is called “Dispositional Optimism Theory”. This approach suggests that optimism is a personality trait. Optimistic people generally expect good things to happen in the future, rather than bad things.
The second is called “Optimistic Explanatory Style”. This is the small voice in your head that explains the events that happen in your life. According to this model, optimists explain negative events by attributing them to external factors. On the other hand, pessimists attribute the causes of their negative experiences to internal factors. Let’s break this down.
Say you just took a test where you scored poorly. If you are an optimist, you might explain this by saying: “The examination room was far too noisy. It was hard to focus.” This cause is external to you and suggests that you will score better in the next one when the room isn’t as loud. A pessimist might have a different opinion: “I’m no good at tests. I’m just stupid.” This explanation is instead internal and extends across a variety of situations. It implies that the person expects to score low in the future.
You might be thinking there’s a catch here. Surely, being so pessimistic and hard on yourself can’t be good. But is blaming your poor performance in a noisy room a useful response?
Is being positive positively toxic?
We tend to overestimate the chances of good things happening to us, while underestimating the chance of bad things. This is called optimism bias. For example, married people underestimate how likely they are to get divorced, and graduating students tend to overestimate how high their starting salary will be. We tend to maintain these biases even when we have contradictory information. For example, informing people about the risks of drinking and smoking is ineffective in changing people’s views on associated diseases.
This clearly isn’t good. Unrealistic optimism can lead people to believe that negative consequences are unlikely while positive ones are to be expected. This may encourage them to take more risks (i.e. sex without protection).
In the current pandemic, unrealistic optimism in our risk of infection may lead us to make poor health behaviours. In fact, it may thrive in uncertainty and ambiguity. Having no prior experience with a pandemic may lead people to underestimate the likelihood of being infected.Early research shows that people do, in fact, show an optimism bias in the context of COVID-19—they believe that they’re less likely to contract the virus than their peers.
However, optimism is a clutch tool in many contexts.
It is, for instance, a predictor of resilience after being exposed to trauma. In other words, optimists tend to bounce back more easily after experiencing negative events. Furthermore, optimists deal better with bereavement and loss than pessimists. This may be because optimists don’t tend to stop dealing with adversity. Finally, optimists have shown to be able to delay gratification, possibly because they have faith in long-term rewards. If you’re optimistic, you may be more likely to follow social distancing guidelines and forgo short-term pleasures in favour of a brighter future.
Optimism is not only linked with better mental health, but also with physical health. Positive people live longer and healthier. This happens because believing in positive outcomes reduces stress and anxiety, both of which relate to our immune system and mental health. Optimism also relates to what we call ‘health-promoting behaviours’, like exercising regularly or eating healthy.
Pessimism, on the other hand, is a key symptom of depression. Studies have shown that those with mild depression do not show optimistic biases when predicting the future, and those with severe depression expect bad things to happen, even when it’s unreasonable.
While leaning into either extreme can lead to terrible decisions and misleading beliefs, an optimistic mindset has significant benefits. We rely on expectations to get a handle of the future. When the predictions are favourable, we feel encouraged to keep going forward. If the predictions are negative, we might not be as interested in knowing what’s to come. These appraisals can greatly change how we act and plan our daily lives.
The Bottom Line
In conclusion, we can say that while optimism can lead to some poor decisions, it is mainly a powerful asset in the face of challenges. One research paper sums this up perfectly – “optimism is a bit like red wine: too much is clearly bad, but a little each day can be good for one’s health.”
Whether it’s a character trait or a way of framing the events that happen around us, optimism has clear advantages (and disadvantages) for our lifestyle and health. You might wonder what the right dose of positivity is and how you can achieve that level. Truth is, we doubt there is a single formula that can predict your personal success or a quantifiable dosage of optimism that’s optimal for you.
We can only suggest the following: keep in mind that your thoughts and beliefs will affect the way you react to your environment. As long as you’re aware of the impact your mindset has on your life, you can start to look for ways to incorporate optimism into your mental diet. Keep a balanced flow of thoughts and you’ll be fine in the long run.
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