There is a real value to an optimistic “everything-is-fine” stance toward life. Studies have shown that pessimists seem to get sick more easily than optimists, experience higher rates of depression, and alienate those closest to them, while optimists—those who see the proverbial glass as half full—live longer than pessimists and are more mentally and physically resilient and productive.
“While optimists-at-all-costs say everything is fine, their bodies and moods frequently tell a far less positive story. As I have repeatedly witnessed in several decades of practicing psychotherapy, they are often plagued by chronic physical ailments, ranging from headaches to back pain to digestive disorders.”
But is there an unseen price for this relentless optimism hopefulness? People who are doggedly optimistic often do not deal with their problems, but bypass them instead. While optimists-at-all-costs say everything is fine, their bodies and moods frequently tell a far less positive story. As I have repeatedly witnessed in several decades of practicing psychotherapy, they are often plagued by chronic physical ailments, ranging from headaches to back pain to digestive disorders. In addition, optimists tend to take their denied and repressed feelings out on other people, being excessively critical, impatient, and overly reactive about trivial matters. Furthermore, they are often not consistently supportive of their friends.
Hope helps us see the possibilities that those resigned to their fates neglect, so optimists may forge ahead when the faint of heart would give up or give in. Optimism can lead to extraordinary feats of creativity and bravery, but it can also be harmful, causing us to deny what we might be better off facing directly. Wishing our troubles away by imagining that everything is fine can open the door to emotional and medical problems when we bury and deny feelings and psychological conflicts—for example, when we insist that we should be finished grieving a loss that still haunts us. And false optimism can make us less empathetic to the suffering that other people encounter. This is an important reason why overly optimistic people can seem impatient with friends or colleagues who are struggling. Rather than offering heartfelt support, they are more likely to say, “Get over it” or “It is meant to be” or “It’s for the best.”
There is a middle ground between being consumed with pessimism that eats away at us, decreases our ability to concentrate, leaves our stomachs in knots, and keeps us awake at night and an only-blue-skies attitude that everything will turn out fine. We can distinguish between hard-won, realistic optimism and obsessive, magical hope by asking ourselves this question: Is my optimism grounded, or is it overriding a reality that needs to be addressed, and thereby hiding or pushing away unpleasant truths that will only get worse if I ignore them? Living with realistic hope fosters those Rewire Me moments—enabling us to open up a lifeline to possibilities that the less optimistic neglect, without falling into the trap of assuming that mere positive thinking will make all of our troubles disappear.