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

The Science of Attachment and Emotional Attunement


According to psychologist D. W. Winnicott (1964), humans are born to be in relationships with others. This is evidenced by infants (and, to a lesser extent, young children) being so helpless that they must rely on others for all needs to be met.

The idea that attachment can be innate is supported by Lorenz’s discovery that goslings attach to (‘imprint on’) the first moving object they see, whether goose, thing or researcher. Given the long period of human infancy, it has been argued that it is adaptive for humans to form attachments to caregivers.

The nature of this attachment was once understood as being purely utilitarian, in that the infant needed practical needs fulfilling, such as nourishment and protection. A hundred years ago, parents were even urged not to pick up their young children in order to encourage independence.

However, Harlow (1958) challenged such assumptions by proposing that infants’ need for ‘contact comfort’ is as essential, if not more so, than their need for ‘primary drives’, such as eating, to be fulfilled. In experiments with infant macaque monkeys raised in captivity and in isolation, Harlow discovered that the monkeys preferred wire frames covered in cloth to cloth-less wire frames with integrated milk feeders. In other words, when offered the choice between sustenance and the comfort of something that approximated a caregiver, the infants chose comfort.

Twenty-first century advances in neuroscience have provided evidence that humans are ‘wired to connect’ (e.g. Lieberman, 2013; Goleman, 2006), but in the mid-twentieth century, Harlow’s findings were revolutionary. They added weight to the ideas of Bowlby, who argued that children are negatively impacted by poor parenting or the loss of or separation from a parent.

Bowlby proposed that how we relate to others and ourselves, and how we experience the relationship between the two, is determined in early childhood based on our repeated experiences with caregivers. While he acknowledged this can be modified with new experiences of relating, he believed that our early lessons in attachment persist across the lifespan.

This internalised belief system he described as an ‘internal working model’ (IWM), which he regarded as templates for all relationships (Bowlby, 1969). It comprises three elements:

Self – how capable we are at getting our needs met, and how worthy we feel of this

Other – how much we can rely on significant others to comfort and care for us

Relational – how well the relationship between self and other can weather challenges and sustain effective communication

Bowlby’s theory was advanced by the work of Ainsworth (1962), who suggested four attachment types as IWMs. She found empirical support through the design of an experiment called the Strange Situation Test (SST) (Ainsworth et al, 1978).

By conducting the SST with 9-18 month olds, Ainsworth found Type B (secure attachment) infants behaved in predicted ways when reunited with their mothers after a short absence during which a stranger interacted with them. Such behaviour included being distressed at the absence of their mother and seeking and accepting comfort and emotional regulation from her when she returned.

In contrast, Type A (insecure-avoidant) infants did not appear distressed when their mothers left, and avoided interaction when they returned. Type C (insecure-resistant or ambivalent), on the other hand, sought contact with the returned mother, but then rejected her. Finally, Type D (disorganised or disoriented) exhibited contradictory behaviour and appeared apprehensive about approaching their mothers.

These researchers proposed three components of a secure attachment: emotional communication, sensitivity and mind-mindedness.

Emotional communication involves children being empowered to show a full range of emotions and learning that all emotions are valid by caregivers responding appropriately to the full spectrum of emotion states.

Sensitivity means caregivers gauge the infant’s needs and emotional states accurately and respond suitably, as opposed to over- or under-stimulating her, responding out of sync, or rejecting her.

Mind-mindedness is akin to sensitivity, in that it involves being in attunement with the infant, but it goes a step further, as to demonstrate mind-mindedness is to show accurate understanding of the child’s mental states by verbalising these. For instance, if a child is crying and the caregiver returns to comfort her, they show sensitivity, but when they also correctly recognise the child is crying because she feels distressed at their absence, and they talk to her about what’s ‘on her mind’ (e.g. “you were worried because I left the room and you wanted me to come back”), this is mind-mindedness.

Research has found that it is the number of non-attuned comments that predicts that the infant will have an insecure attachment type.

Emotional Attunement

An ‘emotion’ has five components:

1. Physiological (e.g. increased heart rate when hearing a noise in the night)

2. Behaviour (e.g. freezing or escaping)

3. Cognition (e.g. perceiving a threat)

4. Affect (e.g. fear)

5. Context (e.g. camping alone in bear country; culture’s and/or family’s attitude toward bears)

These five aspects represent the systemic nature of emotions and explains why emotional triggers, appraisal and expression are highly mediated by culture and personal interpretation.

Emotional experience emerges from the interplay between these five facets of emotion and the complex social environments we exist in (Smith and Thelen, 2003). The dynamic and interpersonal nature of emotional experience is demonstrated in Lavelli and Fogel’s (2005) study in which infants not only responded to caregivers but actively elicited interaction, so that the pairs entered a cycle of “mutual amplification”.

Tronick et al’s (1978) Still Face Paradigm (SFP) showed what happens when this dynamic interplay is interrupted. SFP involves an initial stage where infant and caregiver interact warmly, followed by a period when the carer ceases to interact and adopts a still face, followed by a return to the interaction. The findings revealed that when the interaction was disrupted, the infants were distressed, tried to reengage the carer, and managed their emotions by turning their gaze away. Once interaction resumed, the infants reengaged but with less positive affect.

The implications of this are substantial. It is evidence that infants’ emotional experience is mediated by others, which means this can be shaped – for better or for worse. In a review of the key literature, Morris et al. (2007) proposed that it is in terms of emotional regulation (ER) that caregivers affect infants’ emotional development.

Emotional regulation consists of internal and external processes involved in initiating, maintaining, and modulating the occurrence, intensity, and expression of emotion” (Thompson, 1994, cited in Morris et al., 2007, p. 363).

There are three mechanisms by which caregivers influence infants’ emotional regulation: modelling, parenting practices, and the emotional climate of the family (Morris et al., 2007). Other factors do undoubtedly play a role, such as peers, culture and the bidirectional nature of the carer-infant relationship, but caregiver influences remain important.

Firstly, children learn through observation, and so modelling appropriate emotional responses is a means of positively influencing their development.

Secondly, parenting practices – that is, parents’ behaviour and discourse around emotions, what strategies they teach, and what their meta-emotion philosophy is – are key influencers.

Finally, the emotional climate of the family is shown to play a powerful role in children’s emotional formation, and so ensuring that this promotes emotional regulation and emotional security is essential. Emotions are contagious, and so the (dis)harmony of the familial relationships is absorbed by the child, as is the ‘family expressiveness’ (i.e. the levels of positive/negative emotions exhibited). When negativity reigns, or there is simmering unease or outright animosity between family members, or the parenting style is such that the caregivers are overly demanding or under-responsive, the child experiences emotional insecurity (because they cannot be sure their needs will be met) and emotional dysregulation (because they are overwhelmed by emotions they have not learned to regulate).


Ainsworth, M. D. (1962) ‘The effects of material deprivation: a review of findings and controversy in the context of research strategy’, Deprivation of Maternal Care: A Reassessment of Its Effects, (Public Health Papers, No. 14), Geneva, World Health Organisation.

Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E. and Wall, S. (1978) Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation, Hillsdale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and Loss: Volume 1. Attachment, New York, Basic Books.

Goleman, D. (2006) Social Intelligence: The new science of human relationships, London, Arrow Books.

Harlow, H. F. (1958) ‘The nature of love’, American Psychologist, vol. 13, pp. 673-85.

Lavelli, M. and Fogel, A. (2005) ‘Developmental changes in the relationship between the infant’s attention and emotion during early face-to-face communication: the 2-month transition’, Developmental Psychology, vol. 41, no. 1, pp. 265-80.

Lieberman, M. D. (2013) Social: Why our brains are wired to connect, New York, Crown Publishers.

Morris, A. S., Silk, J. S., Steinberg, L., Myers, S. S., and Robinson, L. R. (2007) ‘The Role of the Family Context in the Development of Emotion Regulation’, Social Development, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 361-388

Smith, L. B. and Thelen, E. (2003) ‘Development as a dynamic system’, TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 7, no. 8, pp.343-8.

Tronick, E. Z., Als, H., Adamson, L., Wise, S. and Brazelton, T. B. (1978) ‘The infant’s response to entrapment between contradictory messages in face-to-face interaction’, Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, vol. 17. no. 1, pp. 1-13.

Winnicott, D. W. (1964) The Child, the Family and the Outside World, London, Pelican Books.

Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash

For the Love of Coworking

This post was written in 2018 for my beloved coworking community, Tribe Porty in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Why is it that coworking at Tribe is so very pleasant?

It’s because we’re all a bit in love with each other…

I’m not talking about secret trysts and unrequited infatuation; it’s what psychologist Dr Barbara Fredrickson calls ‘positivity resonance’. AKA, love.

Every time we fully engage with people, whenever we feel we’ve clicked with someone, and all those moments we share a feeling of mutual connection, it’s love, says Fredrickson.

Seen in this way, love isn’t some rare, lofty state, enjoyed only when all the stars align and feelings are intense between two (or a select number of) people.

Instead, love is experienced in the micro-moments of real-time connection we can get all around us. In other words, when we resonate with people in person, anytime, anywhere, we get a dose of love.

It happens when you smile at the driver giving way and they smile back. It’s when you stop for a chat about your dogs with a stranger on the beach. It’s when you’re actually present with the people you spend time with (rather than checking your phone or worrying about your to-do list).

At Tribe Porty, love abounds when someone offers you a cup of tea, you share a joke across the hotdesk, or you grab a bite with whoever’s in reception!

The thought of this might be making you feel warm and fuzzy, but what’ll blow your socks off is the impact positivity resonance has on our brains and long-term health and wellbeing!

Each of those momentary experiences of connection deepen the bond and commitment between people because we become biosynchronous; that is, our neuronal emotional responses literally mimic each other. We genuinely feel with the other person, because our neurons fire and neurotransmitters release in synchrony with them.

Isn’t that lovely?

What’s more, micro-moments of connection optimise the functioning of the vagus nerve, the link between brain and heart. Doing so steadies heart rate, regulates blood sugar and improves immune response, which are vitally important for the body’s health.

High vagal tones also help us maintain attention and deal with emotions, which together improve our social skills. And since being socially adept means more opportunities for positivity resonance, a virtuous cycle is born!

Next time you’re reaching for a left-over Nairn’s oat cake and your hand brushes a fellow Triber’s so that you both have a giggle, go ahead. Tell them you love them. They’ll get it.

Photo by Shridhar Gupta on Unsplash

Intolerable Boredom

We underestimate the seriousness of boredom.

We think children are ‘just whining’ when they complain of boredom. Bored adults are ‘lazy’, ‘unimaginative’ or ‘hyperactive’. If generous, we sympathise with the experience of boredom as we would a mild toothache that’ll pass.

Yet boredom is a known threat to wellbeing. Nothing makes that clearer than considering the central role boredom plays in the punishment of prisoners. Locked away, the prisoner suffers the drawn-out malaise of time expanded. As added punishment, they are placed in solitary confinement away from stimulation.

It’s hard to deny the severity of boredom under these conditions, but for many of us, of course, life is not a prison and we can access a plethora of stimuli. For some though, profound boredom pervades.

Boredom proneness

Sherlock Holmes is renowned for his proneness to boredom. When ‘the game is not on’, he is famously drawn to the thrilling escape of narcotics. Holmes is the archetypal hyperactive mind who is chronically understimulated by normal life. Suffering from a so-called low boredom threshold, he is one of two distinctive personality types prone to boredom, says psychologist Professor John Eastwood. The other type finds the world so frightening they retreat, and boredom ensues.

It’s not only these extreme personality types who suffer stultification though. Boredom is a complex phenomenon experienced widely that has only recently gained traction in research (2017 marked the fifth International Interdisciplinary Boredom Conference and the seventh Boring Conference). And there’s still little understood about it, as this vague conclusion in Live Science from a 2012 review of research into malaise demonstrates:

“[Boredom is] some combination of an objective lack of neurological excitement and a subjective psychological state of dissatisfaction, frustration or disinterest, all of which result from a lack of stimulation”.

Existential angst

Philosophers and writers, on the other hand, have been debating boredom widely for millennia. Existentialists especially have taken up tedium’s cause for the feelings of meaninglessness and isolation it evokes, such as Kierkegaard in Either/Or and Heidegger in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics.

While the jury remains out for a full scientific understanding of boredom, what is generally agreed is that it involves decreased motivation, isolation, disconnection, insufficient stimulation and reduced attention, and it arouses deeply unpleasant feelings of existential anxiety. At its core, boredom is a problem of time, attention and meaning. Time stretches out, nothing can occupy us sufficiently, and things feel pointless.

The value of boredom

Yet there are benefits. Ennui has driven human innovation from the dawn of time. From an evolutionary perspective, emotions should be adaptive not destructive, so boredom, while unpleasant, may serve to encourage our curiosity. Professor Heather Lench says boredom “stops us ploughing the same old furrow, and pushes us to try to seek new goals or explore new territories or ideas”. Dr Sandi Mann at the University of Central Lancashire found boredom led to higher performance in tests for creativity, possibly because “tedium encouraged their minds to wander, which leads to more associative and creative ways of thinking”.

Benefits aside, we mustn’t dismiss the experience of boredom as trivial or childish. It’s not just an odd turn of phrase that we say, “bored to death”, “dying of boredom” and “kill time”. The suffering from boredom can be intolerable.

Boredom and depression

Boredom is both a cause and symptom of depression. “Boredom is the average state of melancholia, whereas melancholia is the pathological state of boredom,” said Fromm in The Pathology of Normalcy. When depressed, life loses its colour and the monotony of nothingness can drive a person to utter despair, even oblivion. And when bored, like prisoners deprived of stimulation, a person is vulnerable to the black hole of depression.

Eastwood says that people are more prone to boredom when they feel their lives lack meaning and fulfillment. He found that when research participants were coached to see meaning and purpose in their lives, they were less bored during the tests that followed. Boredom, it seems, is indeed an existential condition.


In their 2007 book, Boreout, Peter Werder and Philippe Rothlin write about the dangers of a lack of meaningful work. ‘Boreout’ (in contrast to ‘burnout’) describes the under-stretched worker who is so bored it negatively impacts their productivity and engagement. Management consultancy Sirota Survey Intelligence found in their 2008 study that “being bored has far more serious consequences for an organisation than being overworked”.

Critical theorist and social psychologist Erich Fromm believed boredom to be a response to industrial society in which workers engage in alienated labour. He argued that the thrills and novelty we seek in consumerism are a mere distraction from the tedium induced by this alienation. In our neoliberal, consumerist society, perhaps Oliver Burkeman is on point when he writes, “boredom feels more intolerable, these days, because there’s so much stimulation to be had”.

In 2016, French perfume executive Frédérik Desnard sued his employers for €360,000 for ‘boring him’ out of his €80,000 per year job. Indeed, Mann says boredom can have “severe” consequences, leading to stress, depression and risky habits that can ultimately shorten life expectancy. Yet boreout is not a recognised psychological condition.

In a BBC interview, Natasha Stanley, head coach at Careershifters in London, compares the “insidious creep” of boredom that leads workers to question “what the point of their life is” to the proverbial boiling frog. Drop a frog in boiling water and it’ll hop out. Put it in tepid water and slowly turn up the heat and it’ll boil to death without noticing.

Beware the rising temperature…

Further reading:

Sandi Mann, The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom is Good

Peter Toohey, Boredom: A Lively History

Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash

Stressed! Thoughts, Emotions and Tigers

In all living organisms – humans included – there’s only one system-wide process for ‘alert’ versus ‘relaxed’.

That means that any experience, thought or emotion can activate our emergency response, just as if a tiger were lunging towards us.

When the stress response (aka ‘fight, flight or freeze’) is activated, our bodies are pumped full of adrenalin and cortisol, creating an internal state like a shaken fizzy drink.

In an activated state, our ‘rational’ brains go offline and our memory hierarchy rearranges so that we can access memories of danger in order to know how to act. In combination, these processes cloud our thinking and judgement and flood us with fear-based thoughts and emotions.

Perfect if you want to act fast to escape a T-rex. Not ideal if responding to work stress or a slight from your partner!

Nevertheless, the stress response is adaptive. Not only does it help us survive, but it can also be wonderfully energising – that exhilarating game of tennis is system-wide activation at its finest.

The problem is not the stress response itself, as we have feedback mechanisms that calm the system and restore equilibrium.

The problem is our culture has evolved faster than our biology, and so we’re exposed to chronic stressors we’re simply not built for, which overwhelm the mechanisms we have for healing and recovery.

Fortunately, we have the equipment; we just have to learn how to use it.

To live more physically and mentally healthy lives, we need to:

  • understand our elegant stress responses
  • learn how to identify and reduce stressors
  • learn how to harness and develop our stress-neutralising resources
  • learn how to surf the inevitable waves

Photo by Zulnureen Shariff on Unsplash

The Surprising Benefits of Positive Emotions

The Role of Positive Emotions

Positive emotions don’t just feel good in the moment. They neutralise the effects of negative emotions, help build our psychological, social and practical resources, and improve our physical health and longevity.

We don’t need strong positive emotions to get the benefit, we need little and often. Positive emotions are like nutrients – you don’t eat a single sprig of broccoli and expect the nutritional benefit; you need a steady intake.

Learning to increase how often we experience positive emotions in our daily life and how to notice and savour the fleeting moments we normally miss is the key to getting the most out of them.

Health and Longevity

The fight-or-flight response triggered by negative emotions can take a toll on our bodies if overactivated, such as through chronic stress, leading to sometimes life-threatening conditions.

Happily, positive emotions seem to ‘undo’ the effects of negative emotions, such as by lowering heart rate and blood pressure. This is great news for our health and longevity!

According to research, for every negative emotion we experience, we need three positive emotions as an antidote. The 3:1 ratio is helpful to keep in mind: it’s not that we need to banish negative emotion or permanently feel positive. We just need to take opportunities to experience positive emotions instead of letting them pass us by.

Negativity Bias

Our brains are structured to notice negative events more than positive because detecting threats helped early humans survive.

Think about the last time someone said something that bothered or insulted you – this probably stands out and triggers a negative emotional reaction. Yet all the moments in between when you got along well are largely unnoticed or forgotten.

Negative emotions grab our attention. Consider how you feel when you’re angry or scared. These can be powerful states that overwhelm our bodies and minds. They involve a very real physiological response, as our brain’s amygdala triggers a neural and hormonal cascade causing our body to prepare for ‘fight or flight’.

In contrast, positive emotions can be subtle. If you happen to notice your positive emotions – though quite often, we don’t! – you probably feel a little ’lift’ in your spirits. But if a car then races towards you, it will dominate your attention and get a far bigger reaction from you.

Broaden and Build

Negative emotions might help us survive, but it’s positive emotions that help us thrive.

Whereas negative emotions narrow the focus of our attention and cause us to take actions like defending ourselves or escaping danger, positive emotions cause us to broaden our thinking and behaviour. For instance, joy makes us want to play, and feeling inspired is followed by a desire to do great things.

With these broadened mindsets and behaviours, over time we build our mental and physical resources and even our social bonds. Imagine, for example, that you experience the positive emotion of ‘interest’ in something. Your interest leads you to learn more and more until you find you’ve become quite the expert. Likewise, as you share moments of amusement and affection with someone, your relationship becomes increasingly meaningful and supportive.

As our resources build, we feel more optimistic, more resilient and more socially connected, which in turn generates more positive emotions. This upward spiral is the essence of happiness.

Here’s how these ten positive emotions broaden our thinking and behaviour:

  • Amusement – shared laughter/insight
  • Hope – yearn for positive change
  • Joy – play
  • Pride – dream big
  • Gratitude – creative giving
  • Inspiration – aspire to excellence
  • Serenity – savour
  • Awe – accommodate the new
  • Interest – explore
  • Love – all of the above!

Cohn, M., Fredrickson, B., Brown, S., Mikels, J., Conway, A., & Phelps, E. A. (2009). Happiness Unpacked: Positive Emotions Increase Life Satisfaction by Building Resilience. Emotion9(3), 361-368.

Kashdan, T., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2015). The power of negative emotion: How anger, guilt and self doubt are essential to success and fulfillment. London: Oneworld Publications.

Lomas, T., & Ivtzan, I. (2016). Second Wave Positive Psychology: Exploring the Positive-Negative Dialectics of Wellbeing. Journal of Happiness Studies17(4), 1753-1768.

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash