Forget Positive Thinking – Try Realistic Optimism

Positive Thinking?

Our beliefs and outlook affect how likely we are to achieve our goals and how we deal with setbacks.

There are benefits to pessimism, such as when we assess risk. Research finds that people who feel sad pay closer attention to detail and make fewer judgement errors, whereas when feeling happy we tend to take greater risks and make more mistakes.

However, research also shows we perform better and have better health and wellbeing when we take an optimistic view. Even when dealing with difficult situations, like health issues or changing careers, taking an optimistic stance leads us to fare better.

What’s the answer, then?!

Realistic Optimism

What we need to practise is ‘realistic optimism’.

It’s not about positive thinking, it’s about critical thinking. As Dr. Gabor Mate says:

“What I really believe in is the power of thinking. As soon as we qualify the word thinking with the adjective positive, we exclude those parts of reality that strike us as ’negative’.”

Having unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment and a feeling of failure, and then we may feel pessimistic towards future goals. Neither is it helpful, though, to bask in negativity.

Instead, we need to interrogate our thoughts for truth, learning how to distinguish between irrational beliefs that paralyse us and the more probable outcomes.

Being ‘Realistic’

There are two kinds of reality – nonreflexive and reflexive.

‘Nonreflexive reality’ can’t be influenced by beliefs, thoughts, wishes or expectations. This independent reality is the reality that is at play when a snowstorm grounds your plane, or you don’t get the job you wanted – no amount of thinking or wishing will change that reality.

Reflexive reality, however, is influenced (sometimes determined?) by our perceptions and expectations. Scientists find that taking a hopeful view leads to better outcomes because when we’re optimistic our brains perform better and we’re open to opportunities.

As author and depression researcher Johann Hari writes, “a sense of a positive future protects you”. When we are low today but hopeful about the future, we can ride out the storm knowing it will pass.

Most of our thoughts about the future are just guesses anyway, so we might as well take a hopeful view.


Dweck, C. S. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House: New York.

Hanson, R. (2013) TEDx talk, Hardwiring Happiness

Hari, J. (2019) Lost Connections. Bloomsbury: London.

Mate, G. (2019) When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress. Vermilion: London.

Reivich, K. & Shatte, A. (2003) The Resilience Factor. Broadway Books: New York.

Seligman, P. (2011) Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing. Free Press: New York.

Photo by Manouchehr Hejazi on Unsplash