Like everything else in this world optimism has its limits. Even positive thinking has its limits. In some cases negative thinking can be valuable.
Having suffered through an era of negative psychology one understands why positive psychologists would be prescribing large doses of optimism.
It makes sense to say that your ability to complete a task will increase if you believe that you can do it.
The more you are optimistic, the more you will persevere. The more you persevere, the more you are likely to succeed.
Besides, pessimism often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. People who are convinced they will fail are more likely to give up too soon, thus to fail.
As I said, it makes perfectly good sense.
Now, however, new research has challenged these views. Or better, has put them in perspective.
Roberto Ferdman reports in the Washington Post:
"Reach for the stars" is the sort of uplifting advice parents impart on their children, coaches pass along to their players, and people all over the place repeat to themselves. And for good reason: A life outlook that, generally speaking, assumes the best, has many tangible benefits. Positive thinking has been linked to better relationships, increased happiness, and health.
Great, we all think.
Unfortunately, in some situations optimism is not your friend.
Remember a book about what was called “the secret.” The book suggested that if you think it, it will come true. A lot of people took the book very seriously. It was offering an alternative that was better than work.
And yet, it was purveying a belief that we should have long since discarded. Namely, that your state of mind will naturally express itself in the world and will naturally change the world.
The old name for this was magical thinking. We do not need a new name.
The truth is, if you believe you will succeed when you lack the talent or the training to succeed, it might cause you to keep working on a project you will never complete… and thus waste your time.
Optimism isn't merely unhelpful at times—it can be demonstrably counterproductive. Telling someone "you can you do it" when they actually can't doesn't change the outcome, and it makes them more likely to exert time and effort on a fruitless task.
It takes more than the right attitude to succeed in life.
Moreover, studies have also shown that people who are overly optimistic tend to be more impulsive about their finance.
Ferdman quotes Professor Don Moore, from Berkeley:
Moore, based on both his research and his real life observations, favors more of a middle ground, where one's expectations are as closely aligned with reality as possible.
"Early on in my career, I was quite sure that there were instances where being optimistic helps you perform better," he said. "Now I'm pretty sure that the true value is in realism."
A middle ground is always the place to be.
One might throw oneself into optimism and positive thinking as an antidote to pessimism, but one size does not always fit and the right frame of mind is never a substitute for good judgment.