The Limits and Misuses of Optimism

“If you can’t be positive, at least be quiet.”

I recently saw a Facebook meme with these words. Oy. What an egregious misuse of the powerful concept of optimism!

As we explored in Part 1 of this blog post – “From Pessimism to Optimism – A Healthy Shift” – optimism grounded in reality helps us live happier, healthier, and more productive lives. It’s a powerful tool for elevating our quality of life.

Being optimistic, however, doesn’t require being quiet about, ignoring, suppressing, or belittling so-called “negative” emotions. Anger, sadness, anxiety, gloominess – they all come up intermittently throughout every life.

The truth is, we can’t be dimensional human beings without all our emotions and without expressing them at least some of the time -- in healthy ways as far as possible (no one does emotionally healthy all the time). If we must always suppress our anger, disappointment, grief, and anxiety, we can't learn from these emotions, and in turn we can’t grow and mature.

Feelings – all of them! – infuse life with richness. It’s counterproductive to emotional health and just plain silly to pretend we don’t experience everything from ecstatic joy to abysmal depression.

So here are a few brief points about the limits and misuses of optimism and positive thinking.

  • Excessive Optimism Is Alienating - People who obsessively turn every painful circumstance into something positive risk skimming the surface of their lives. They can become shallow and shiny and plastic, which is off-putting to others. Most people are annoyed by a gloss-over approach to life, and they tend to avoid always-positive folks.

  • Requiring Optimism of Anyone Other than Ourselves Is Hurtful - When we respond to other people’s’ “negative” comments with suggestions like “look on the bright side” or “see the glass as half full, not half empty,” they’re likely to feel worse, not better. These comments are put downs because they imply a person isn’t doing their emotions right. And they’re likely to be received as demands, not mere suggestions. Even if you’re a healthy optimist and not obsessive about your positive thinking, keep comments like these to yourself. Use them for your own emotional regulation, not for anyone else’s. You’ll be happier, and so will your friends and loved ones.

  • Being Overly Optimistic Can Make You Unproductive – If you think so positively so much that you think you can get away with less effort, you might become less productive. While productivity isn’t necessarily the best measure of a good life, it does matter. If you tend to do this, temper your optimism by intentionally remembering times your positive thinking created problems for you.

  • False Hope Is Worse than No Hope – Sometimes it’s adaptive to give up on something and move on. If you tend to stick with things like bad relationships or poor investments out of cheeriness that surely this will work out in the end, you’re headed into unhealthy optimism. Being willing to look at negative evidence and absorb it rather than cheerfully glossing over it is not being pessimistic. It’s being rational.

To summarize, optimism is generally a good thing, but we need our “negative” emotions – a certain amount of reasonable pessimism – for a full and dimensional life. If we favor so completely the positive or if we actively push away the negative, we lose important parts of ourselves. We flatten out and become a single dimension of shiny positivity.

We’re less than whole when we can’t say what we’re NOT grateful for, when we stifle every complaint, when we lose our rage about injustice. Being both positive and negative – with an overall balance toward positive – makes us whole.

Sue Bergin, MA, has 10 years of experience as a personal coach and hospice chaplain. She coaches adults around issues such as faith transitions, making difficult decisions, perfectionism, caregiver burnout and self-care, relationship clarity, physical illness (serious & chronic), end-of-life decisions and adaptation to unmarried life.

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