The Dark Side of Optimism: How to Know If Your Positive Energy Is Hurting You
A small dose of optimism is good for our well-being in any situation. But too much of it is a fantasy.
We sure like to think about ourselves as rational and logical human beings. We plan our future just like everyone else. If we don’t suffer from mental disorders such as depression or anxiety, we’ll almost always believe in a brighter future and positive outcomes.
Even if at the moment things are not going too great for you, you want to think that this is just a phase – you’ll eventually find someone to love, marry, have a good job and all that.
After all, you’re probably not asking for fortune and fame. You just want that normal life that everyone wants.
And why would you think about all the tragedies that can happen at one point? That can’t be healthy! The truth is, you don’t have to constantly think that bad things are going to happen to you, but you must acknowledge that life isn’t always beautiful or fair. When you underestimate the likelihood that negative events might occur in your life – you demonstrate the optimism bias.
What Is the Optimism Bias?
As stated above, your brain has a built-in optimism bias. Where? – Within the frontal lobe. This part of the brain is in charge of your problem solving, social interactions and future planning. If you happen to be presented with information that is worse than what you expect, your frontal lobe simply doesn’t want to hear it.
Let’s think of an example. Statistically speaking, about 50% of marriages in the United States end up in divorce or separation. Whether you knew this or not, no one wants to think about stats on their wedding day.
Your brain doesn’t want to process information that will require you to negatively update your beliefs about your future.
This phenomenon which is also often referred to as “the illusion of invulnerability,” or “unrealistic optimism,” leads us to believe that we’re more likely to be successful, live longer than the average, have smarter kids, and so on. But truth being told, we can’t all be above average.
Factors That Contribute to Optimism Bias
One of the factors that contribute to making the optimism bias more likely to occur, is the way people in Western civilizations tend to raise their children. They are constantly encouraged to adopt a more positive outlook on life. After all, you can’t just step on a child ‘s dream and tell them from the get go that life might not treat them well.
Most children are bombarded with messages about releasing their potential. They are told that nothing is impossible. But as they grow up, what will they do with all these affirmations when they realize that not everything is in their control? What happens when the entitlement and self-esteem built over so many years, disappear when we see that some things become “impossible” to do.
Maybe you’re thinking about constantly getting straight As and being the best at everything. Sadly, because of too much positive reinforcement and high expectations, disorders such anxiety and depression are diagnosed more than ever in those of younger ages.
Some other factors that make the optimism bias to occur are:
- Infrequent events – most people think that they are less likely to be affected by hurricanes and other natural disasters because these don’t usually happen o a daily basis. Especially when you live in a more protective region.
- People experience optimism bias more when they think they have everything under control. It’s not that they believe that things will magically work out, but they are certain that their skills and knowledge will help them achieve their goal.
- The optimism bias also occurs if a negative event is perceived as unlikely. If someone believes that getting some sort of serious disease rarely happens, they are more likely to be unrealistic about the situation and expose themselves to all kinds of risks.
The optimism bias doesn’t necessarily mean that we have an overly sunny outlook on our lives, but it can lead to poor decision making that often has disastrous outcomes. Some of these optimistic people believe they are invincible, they think they can abuse drinking, smoking or even more dangerous substances without having to face any health-related consequences. They would probably engage in other risky or unhealthy behaviors (not wearing the seatbelt, gambling, etc.) simply because they can’t imagine experiencing an adverse event or a negative consequence.
So Why Are We Still Too Optimistic at Times?
Tali Sharot, cognitive neuroscientist and author of The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, says that this bias is spread in cultures all over the world. She also states that while the optimism bias can sometimes lead to negative situations like recklessly engaging in risky behavior, it can also have its benefits.
Researchers have revealed that among the various causes that lead to optimism bias are cognitive and motivational factors.
When we evaluate our risks, we compare ourselves to others around us, but we are also egocentric. Thus, we focus on ourselves instead of realistically analyzing how we compare to others.
On the other hand, we do it because optimism gets us motivated. By believing that we are more likely to succeed in whatever we set our minds to, we have better self-esteem, lower stress levels, and it overall makes us feel better.
Is There an Optimal Dose of Optimism?
The world we live in gives us access to all kinds of information. We know from reading the news or by keeping up to date on social media that bad, tragic and even horrible things happen everyday. And we should be aware that they are also likely to happen to us. Yet, we chose to selectively update our beliefs about the future only in response to positive information.
Optimism in certain dozes is good for our general well-being, but too much of it will probably lead you to make decisions you later might regret. Living in oblivion and thinking only positive thoughts can quickly turn into a state of severe shock if something horrible happens to you.
Of course, the absence of positive expectations of the future is mostly associated with symptoms of mild depression and anxiety. So have those positive expectations, but try to find a balance. Rigorously analyze whatever decision you’re about to make and think about its outcomes. The right dose of optimism is the one that keeps you happy and healthy.