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Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. Headshot

How to Be an Optimist Without Being a Fool

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REALISTIC OPTIMISM

There are quite a number of motivational speakers and self-improvement books out there with a surprisingly simple message: believe that success will come easily to you and it will. There is one small problem with this argument, however, which unfortunately doesn't seem to stop anyone from making it: it is utterly false.

In fact, not only is visualizing "effortless success" unhelpful, it is disastrous. This is good advice to give only if you are trying to sabotage the recipient. It is a recipe for failure. And no, I'm not overstating it.

But how can this be? Isn't optimism a good thing? Yes it is. Optimism and the confidence it creates are essential for creating and sustaining the motivation you need to reach your goals. Albert Bandura, one of the founding fathers of scientific psychology, discovered decades ago that perhaps the best predictor of an individual's success is whether or not they believe they will succeed. Thousands and thousands of experiments later, he has yet to be proven wrong.

But there is an important caveat: to be successful, you need to understand the very vital difference between believing you will succeed, and believing you will succeed easily. Put another way, it's the difference between being a realistic optimist and an unrealistic optimist.

Realistic optimists (the kind Bandura was talking about) believe that they will succeed, but they also believe they have to make success happen, through things like effort, careful planning, persistence and choosing the right strategies. They recognize the need for giving serious thought to how they will deal with obstacles. This preparation only increases their confidence in their own ability to get things done.

Unrealistic optimists, on the other hand, believe that success will happen to them -- that the universe will reward them for all their positive thinking, or that somehow they will be transformed overnight into the kind of person for whom obstacles cease to exist (forgetting that even Superman had Kryptonite... and a secret identity that took a lot of trouble to maintain... and also relationship issues).

One of the clearest illustrations of the dangers of unrealistic optimism comes from a study of weight loss. Psychologist Gabriele Oettingen asked a group of obese women who had enrolled in a weight-loss program how likely they felt they were to reach their goals. She found that those women who were confident that they would succeed lost 26 pounds more than self-doubters, as expected.

But Oettingen also asked the women to tell her what they imagined their road to success would be like -- if they thought they would have a hard time resisting temptation, or if they'd have no problem turning down free doughnuts in the conference room and a second trip to the all-you-can-eat buffet. The results were astounding: women who believed they would succeed easily lost 24 pounds less than those who thought their weight-loss journey would be no walk in the park.

She has found the same pattern of results in studies of students looking for high-paying jobs after college, singles looking to find lasting love, and seniors recovering from hip replacement surgery. Realistic optimists send out more job applications, find the courage to approach potential romantic partners, and work harder on their rehabilitation exercises -- in each case, leading to much higher success rates.

Believing that the road to success will be rocky leads to greater success, because it forces you to take action. People who are confident that they will succeed, and equally confident that success won't come easily, put in more effort, plan how to deal with problems before they arise and persist longer in the face of difficulty.

Unrealistic optimists are only too happy to tell you that you are "being negative" when you dare to express concerns, harbor reservations or dwell too long on obstacles that stand in the way of your goal. In truth, this kind of thinking is a necessary step in any successful endeavor, and it is not at all antithetical to confident optimism. Focusing only on what we want, to the exclusion of everything else, is just the kind of naïve and reckless thinking that has landed industry leaders (and at times entire industries) in hot water.

Cultivate your realistic optimism by combining a positive attitude with an honest assessment of the challenges that await you. Don't visualize success: visualize the steps you will take in order to make success happen.

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