Decoding optimism: between reality and expectation

The very nuanced nature of optimism

4 min read

Optimism is a nuanced concept. While many view it as a powerful trait benefiting health, well-being, and career prospects, proposing that if we think big and positively, good things will come our way. However, this perspective is rather simplistic. It's worth noting that many studies on optimism are correlational and don't prove causation. Skeptics often view optimism and its associated notions as forced, unrealistic, or even disingenuous, potentially overshadowing our authentic human experience. Might this be the propaganda of positivity? Let's delve into the intricate science surrounding optimism.

Firstly, how do we define optimism? Common definitions center on hope and confidence about the future and an inclination to see situations in a positive light. These are distinct aspects; while the former concerns positive outcome expectations, the latter emphasizes attention management. More technical terms include the "optimism bias", which suggests we believe we're less prone to adverse events than others. Despite knowing statistics about divorce, cancer, and accidents, we think, "It won't happen to me." Then there's the illusion of self-control, where we overestimate our control over events. Another is the "better than average" effect, where we're overly optimistic about our abilities (Bortolotti & Antrobus, 2015). These definitions largely stem from Western-based research. General studies often gauge a tendency toward optimism vs. pessimism, focusing on our belief in favorable outcomes from our actions.

Optimism does correlate with positive qualities. It's linked with fewer depressive symptoms (Hart et al., 2008), fewer cardiovascular issues (Rozanski et al., 2019), and better overall well-being. But there's a caveat: many of these studies are correlational. Meaning, optimistic individuals often exhibit better health, but it's unclear which causes which. Could a third factor, like genetic predispositions, influence both optimism and health? If there's no causality, what then of interventions aimed at boosting optimism? There are, however, longitudinal studies suggesting those more optimistic earlier in life later show fewer depressive symptoms (Kleinman et al., 2017) and greater happiness (Choi et al., 2016). Yet, these aren't definitive proofs of causality. I did come across a study where optimism was taught (Sergeant & Montgrain, 2014), and participants subsequently displayed fewer depressive symptoms, albeit with moderate short-term effects.

The details matter. "Optimism training" in the study involved focusing on life's positives and viewing goals as achievable. It's grounded, pragmatic optimism. However, different optimism types yield different outcomes. Unrealistic optimism might mean ignoring health warnings, thinking, "Cancer won't affect me." While optimism often correlates with better health, some argue realism better serves those with chronic illnesses (Hurt et al., 2014). Diverse optimism types were studied by Kleinman et al. (2017). Positive expectations predicted better functioning, but a "sense of invulnerability" correlated with more physical symptoms. Sometimes, realism is healthier.

Issues arise when optimism feels obligatory. Has society ever pressured you to be more positive, sidelining your genuine feelings? Overemphasizing optimism can be alienating, making us feel insufficient. Despite any learned optimism, "negative" emotions won't vanish. True optimism involves confidence and hope, but it shouldn't necessitate repressing fear, doubt, or disappointment. Embrace them as life's natural facets. We can't always control outcomes, and everyone faces challenges. It's essential to strike a balance. For example, undue optimism about relationships can set us up for disappointment (Neef & Geers, 2013). Idealistic expectations can hinder coping with real-life issues.

To summarize this intricate topic: lean into the positives, but softly and without stifling the negatives. Be confident in your goals and abilities, yet realistic about life's hurdles. Personally, I'd label myself an optimist, but not because I always expect life's best outcomes. Instead, I believe in my capability to manage whatever comes my way. As mentioned earlier, true optimism might mean embracing, not suppressing, "negative" emotions. Our environment's control is limited; everyone faces both joys and challenges. But the belief that we can adaptively cope with these experiences? That's genuine optimism.


  • Bortolotti, L., & Antrobus, M. (2015). Costs and benefits of realism and optimism. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 28(2), 194–198.

  • Hart, S. L., Vella, L., & Mohr, D. C. (2008). Relationships among depressive symptoms, benefit-finding, optimism, and positive affect in multiple sclerosis patients after psychotherapy for depression. Health Psychology, 27(2), 230–238.

  • Hurt, C. S., Burn, D. J., Hindle, J. V., Samuel, M., Wilson, K. C. and Brown, R. G. (2014). Thinking positively about chronic illness: An exploration of optimism, illness perceptions and well-being in patients with Parkinson's disease. British Journal of Health Psychology, 19(2), pp. 363-379.

  • Jong An Choi, 최인철, Eunsoo Choi, & Minha Lee. (2016). Are Optimistic People Happy or Are Happy People Optimistic?: A Longitudinal Analysis for the Examination of Causal Relationship between Optimism and Happiness. 한국심리학회지: 사회및성격, 30(3), 95–114

  • Kleiman, E. M., Chiara, A. M., Liu, R. T., Jager-Hyman, S. G., Choi, J. Y., & Alloy, L. B. (2017). Optimism and well-being: a prospective multi-method and multi-dimensional examination of optimism as a resilience factor following the occurrence of stressful life events. Cognition and Emotion, 31(2), 269–283.

  • Neff, L. A., & Geers, A. L. (2013). Optimistic expectations in early marriage: A resource or vulnerability for adaptive relationship functioning? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105(1), 38–60.

  • Rozanski, A., Bavishi, C., Kubzansky, L. D., & Cohen, R. (2019). Association of Optimism With Cardiovascular Events and All-Cause Mortality. JAMA Network Open, 2(9), e1912200.

  • Sergeant, S., & Mongrain, M. (2014). An online optimism intervention reduces depression in pessimistic individuals. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 82(2), 263–274.