Overoptimism: When Optimism Isn’t A Happiness Magnet

Optimism is the mental outlook that things are going to work out fine. Optimism is much like hope, but they aren’t the same.

Being optimistic is thinking about your life and looking at the world in rose-colored, bright tones. As an optimist, you believe situations will turn out alright, and there are always new opportunities waiting for you around the corner.

People with an optimistic view seem to have better mental health than those who are pessimistic. Those who expect good things will happen, tend to have more energy and vitality, and less depression, anxiety, and anger. Optimistic people also have greater self-esteem, social support networks based on trust and optimism for the future.

But, is optimism always the great motivator that we think it is?

Optimism And Happiness

Though optimism and happiness seem like close cousins, they are quite different.

Optimism is a positive (“optimistic”) view of the future grounded in a realistic evaluation of today. Happiness is mostly a present positive state of mind.

Even if you are unhappy now, you can be optimistic about the future. As well, you can be pessimistic about the future but still enjoy the present moment.

Positive psychologists use the term Subjective Well-Being (SWB) to define happiness — as a mix of both hedonia (positive feelings) and eudaimonia (life satisfaction).

How Optimism Affects Our Health

Optimism is a key ingredient of wellbeing, and the more optimistic one is, the healthier they tend to be. It can help you cope better with everyday stress, exercise regularly, eat healthfully, avoid harmful habits like smoking, improve your sleep, and boost your energy.

Researchers have spent years investigating positive emotions and optimistic attitudes. Thanks to their studies, we’ve learned that being optimistic can help us become happier, healthier, and even wealthier.

The more optimistic people are less likely to suffer from heart attacks and strokes, or die from cardiovascular diseases.

Optimism is good for our wellbeing, as long as we do not get too optimistic.

How Does Optimism Make You Happy

In the largest study of its kind, researchers at Harvard University led by Dr. Elissa Epel followed more than 19,000 men and women for more than 20 years. The researchers found that optimists are healthier than pessimists. They live longer, get sick less often, and get better faster when they do get sick.

Optimism also motivates us to push through the dark times and work harder toward our dreams — a quality called grit.

Optimistic people are not only happier but also more successful in their careers. Researchers found that optimists have better financial health and engage in healthier money habits than pessimists.

Optimists also reported stressing about finances 145 fewer days in a year than pessimists. Over the course of their careers, optimistic employees make more money and are more likely to be promoted.

One study of 1,000 Harvard MBA graduates over the course of 20 years found that optimists were 24 percent more likely to be successful in business than those who were not.

The optimists also tend to be more persuasive and have happier marriages. Dr. Ben Karney (2010) noted that the happiest people are better able to emphasize the positive aspects of their marriages or relationships.

Research has also shown that optimism is related to happiness. One study of college students found optimistic students were more likely to be happy.

Overoptimism or Optimism bias

Did you know that excessive optimism can make you unhappier, and overoptimism is real?

Overoptimism: When Being Optimistic Is Not Good

You can’t have an infinite supply of a good thing. It’s the same with optimism, and there seems to be a backfire effect of optimism. Researchers are beginning to discover that optimism can cause harm at times.

Overoptimism is an excessive or unrealistic level of optimism. It is a form of optimism bias that makes people overestimate the benefits, and underestimate the risks involved, in any situation. It can cause a person to only consider the positive aspects of a situation while minimizing or ignoring its potential pitfalls.

Optimism bias is a type of cognitive bias that causes people to believe that they are less at risk for negative events than others. This can be seen in situations such as predicting outcomes in sports, betting on election results, or when buying lottery tickets.

For much of the 20th century, the United States government advertised to promote economic prosperity, educated people to help them improve their lives, and organized events to inspire ordinary Americans to aspire to be more successful.

One might argue that all of that were attempts to instill optimism in US citizens.

However, American optimism plateaus out between 55 and 70 years of age, and then, it starts to decline.

In a recent study on 75,000 people, the researchers found, for Americans, optimism increased across younger adulthood, went flat in midlife, and then decreased in older adulthood.

Recent studies show that more optimism can lead to less happiness over time. Studies that examine the specific effects of optimism find that more optimistic people can also be unhappy.

Psychologists find that some people have a perceptual bias that keeps them from seeing the world as it really is. These people are consistently overconfident about their abilities, performance, and fortuitousness.

They tend to overestimate the possibility of their optimistic projections, believing that events will always unfold in their favor. When the results come unexpected, the “unrealistic optimism” in a person may reduce their overall happiness.

The researchers of the Harvard Happiness Study found that optimists aren’t necessarily happier than pessimists. In fact, their research has shown that the optimists who reacted to a negative event by thinking of a positive result were healthier and happier than the pessimists.

How To Reduce Optimism Bias

There are proven ways to reduce the optimism bias, including:

  • recognizing the optimism bias when it occurs,
  • being aware of how it may affect decision-making, and
  • considering alternative viewpoints when making predictions.

Final Words

Having to deal with the negative patches in life is tough for everyone. Even the most optimistic people may face challenges from time to time.

You can train yourself to become more optimistic about your life. But you must also be wary to not become more optimistic than you should be.

So, pause and ask: how much optimism is too much, and when does it stop giving the gifts?

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Find out the 3 worst ways a glass-half-full attitude can harm you.

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.

• Our story: Happiness Project

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