Whoever said that everything in moderation is a good thing was definitely onto something. How many of us grew up believing in Peter Pan philosophies, that thinking happy thoughts would make everything better? Or that "every cloud has a silver lining", "the glass is always half-full", and that no matter how awful life gets, "there's a light at the end of the tunnel"? Perhaps you were at the other extreme, raised on the belief that by thinking the worst of everything and everyone, you'd be better prepared for inevitable disappointment. The truth is, there are benefits to both sides. The ideal, it seems, may just lie somewhere in the middle. This article discusses the downside and upside to both perpetual optimism and pessimism, and attempts to find a happy medium between the two.
Psychologists and self-help gurus have long touted that an optimistic attitude or positive thinking is the key to success and happiness - and there is plenty of research to back the claim up. Studies have shown that positive thinking can reduce tension (Wellner & Adox, 2000) and enhance emotional well-being and cardiovascular health (Calabia, 200). A study by McGregor et al. (2004) found that women who had a more optimistic outlook tended to be less worried about breast cancer, while pessimists had a tendency to overestimate their risk of being diagnosed with the disease. Not only are optimists shown to be more resilient in the face of difficulties, but they also have healthier lifestyle habits, and cope with stress more easily (Wellner & Adox, 2000; Myers, 1992). Their proactive approach to life and ability to see the possible in the impossible also makes them quite successful (Myers, 1992).
Obviously, positive thinking does have its undisputable benefits, but is there such a thing as being too optimistic? We've all come across that "annoyingly" happy Pollyanna who is sooooo perpetually joyful that their peals of laughter feel like nails on a chalkboard…but really, what's wrong with that? What's wrong with finding joy in a flat tire (you get to practice your tire-changing skills), humor in a broken leg (it really was a pretty funny tumble down those stairs) or new beginnings in a stolen wallet (all those newly shiny cards you will get)? One potential problem is that people who refuse to take off their rose-colored glasses can put both their emotional and physical health at risk. Some optimists - or, more to the point, unrealistic optimists - have been known to ignore serious disease symptoms (assuming that they would simply go away) (Lazarus, 2000), refrain from using safety precautions when taking risks (Myers, 1992), and deal with emotional problems through denial, nonchalance, or blaming others (Centre for Confidence and Well-Being, n.d.; Lawson, 2004). Some stress (non-chronic) is actually good for our body, giving us the boost we need to effectively deal with a situation (Raeburn, 2006). However, research has also revealed that while optimism can be a protective factor against stress, it can actually suppress the immune system in cases where the stressor is much more serious and complex (Segerstrom, 2006).
Although very few therapists (if any) would promote negative thinking, setting our expectations lower can, in some cases, result in less disappointment - or at least much less than what an optimist would have expected (Richler, 2000). Ultimately however, there are few positive things to say about pessimism (yes, pun intended). Pessimists tend to have higher blood pressure, greater difficulty dealing with anxiety and stress and, not surprisingly …being chronic party poopers, more interpersonal difficulties (Chatterjee, 1999).
Now, optimists at this point can easily turn around and say, "You're wrong. We've always looked on the bright side of things, maintained an eternal positive attitude, and things have been good. Why should we have to assume the worst? Why should we focus on the negative? Life is too short!" And they're right - if you expect the worst in life, chances are pretty good that you'll get it … negativism does tend to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
"Be that as it may", the pessimists would probably respond, "We're just as successful as you smiling fools. We live a good life. We may not be happy, but really, who is? Happiness is a pipe dream. Anybody who says she's or he's happy is either a liar or drunk." Once again, they're right. Pessimists, by expecting the worst, are sometimes better prepared.
But between the two adversaries lies the voice of reason - the Realist. The realists, benefiting from the strengths of both sides, see the situation differently: "You're right. You all are. But there's no reason to walk around all day with a stormy cloud above your head or those blinding rose-colored glasses. Happiness is the journey, not a destination. Think positively, but with common sense."
No one has hurt themselves smiling or frowning…but I don't think any of us have the energy to smile or frown all the time. In the end, it may be that the key to life and happiness is this: There's nothing wrong with hanging out on cloud nine but for goodness sake, wear a parachute.
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2. Centre for Confidence and Well-Being (n.d.). The Power of Pessimism. Retrieved April 13, 2007, from http://www.centreforconfidence.co.uk/pp/overview.php?p=c2lkPTQmdGlkPTAmaWQ9NjA=
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11) Wellner, A. S., & Adox, D. (2000). Happy Days. Psychology Today (242). Retrieved April 13, 2007, fromhttp://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-20000501-000015.htm