Optimism, positive re-framing, realism: What works & what doesn't?

Over the holidays, I noticed a predictable spate of articles in various journals – Forbes, NY Times and the Wall Street Journal to name a few – reminding readers of the power of optimism, especially for entrepreneurs and other business leaders. In every case, the author, whether psychologist, business coach or consultant, stressed the importance of re-framing most any event in our lives in positive ways. One writer referenced Seligman’s learned optimism work from the early 1990’s to support the notion that the more optimistically you can explain an event to yourself, the higher your self-esteem and the better you’ll feel and do in the world. The writer went on to cite Richard Branson and Ben Franklin as epitomes of optimistic thinking. I get why these stories tend to appear at holiday time, but I have to disagree with both the message and the examples used in this one.

As powerful as the effects of positive thinking may be, research done at Adaptiv Learning has shown that excessive optimism can actually compromise problem solving and undermine resilience. We’ve shown that extreme optimists tend to underestimate risk and get blindsided by the bad stuff. Realistic optimism – being hopeful and seeing the future as bright, but within the bounds of reality – trumps over-optimism every time. So for years we’ve encouraged people to think as optimistically as they can, but always within the bounds of reality.

As far as holding Sir Richard and old Ben up as exemplary optimists, I would wager that each of them would approach every challenge or adversity with a steely-eyed realism – first accurately assessing a situation and its causes and then applying their resources where they were likely get the best results. Only then would they let their positivity brim over. Optimistic? Absolutely! Starry-eyed? Never!

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