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How To Develop Realistic Optimism

You have probably heard yourself or others say, “I’m an optimist” or “I’m a pessimist” as if being optimistic or pessimistic is a personality or character trait. They aren’t. Optimism and pessimism are thinking styles that have been practiced and learned over time, and have a profound impact on how we see the world and our role in it.

The Penn Resilience Program has shown that optimism is a cognitive skill that can be learned. In turn it also shows that pessimistic beliefs can be challenged, leading to increased problem-solving, cognitive flexibility and resiliency. We are born with a negativity bias. The evolution of our species depended on it. For generations long gone, a negativity bias helped in identifying threats to avoid and challenges to overcome.

Ilona Boniwell defines optimism as a “generalized sense of confidence about the future, characterized by a broad expectancy that outcomes are likely to be positive”. Optimism is made up of hopeful and positive expectations for the future along with an explanatory style that explains what happens to you (Seligman, 1998). Martin Seligman (1998), also known as the father of Positive Psychology, identifies “the basis of optimism does not lie in positive phrases or images of victory, but in the way you think about causes.”

How you EXPLAIN WHY something has happened matters.

“The reason _____________ happened is ____________.”

Explanatory Style is separated by 3 Ps:

  1. Personalization: Is what happened due to internal or external causes? Me vs Not Me.

  2. Permanence: Is this permanent or temporary? Always vs Not Always.

  3. Pervasiveness: Is this global or local? Everything vs Not Everything

When positive or negative things happen in our lives or the lives of others, pessimistic thinkers and optimistic thinkers will explain the cause (WHY) of events in different ways. Explanatory style (Seligman, 2006) is a habitual way of explaining the good and bad events that happen.

Why is Optimism Important?

The research (Seligman, 2006) shows that optimists (those that use an optimistic explanatory style) experience less distress than pessimists when dealing with difficulties in life, as they adapt better to negative events. Optimists are also much less likely to suffer from depression or anxiety and report more health promoting behaviours. Optimists show continuous effort during challenging tasks and seek to learn from experiences both positive and negative whereas pessimists don’t often persist in the face of challenges. Even when pessimists are right and things turn out badly, they will feel worse because they identify setbacks as disasters. Although optimists are shown to be more productive in careers related to sales, in positions that require risk aversion as a necessity such as the fields of law, civil engineering and operating a power plant, in these careers pessimists do significantly better than optimists.

Finding the Balance: Realistic Optimism

Although there are many benefits to practicing an optimistic thinking style, there is no “right” thinking style, as becoming stuck in one style can limit our perspective. Developing a thinking style that is flexible can help us stay open to the realities of the challenges, limitations and struggles we face, while maintaining a hopeful and positive attitude about our future. The idea that internal and external influences are opposites is an unrealistic dichotomy, as outcomes are almost always defined by the interaction between the individual and the environment (Schneider, 2001).

When increasing optimism, we want to engage in realistic optimism (Schneider, 2001) and not an optimistic illusion that overlooks possible consequences, leading us to underestimate risk, thus not engaging in prevention strategies to mitigate negative outcomes. Baumeister (1988) suggested that there may be an optimal margin of illusion that allows people to see themselves as slightly better than they really are, but does not typically lead to behaviours based on false assumptions.

Realistic optimism (Schneider, 2001) involves hoping for a positive outcome by setting achievable goals and working towards desired outcomes without the expectation that a particular outcome will occur. Our hopes and aspirations for a positive outcome is not just about wishful thinking, it is about increasing the likelihood of desirable and personally meaningful outcomes by taking action while recognizing situational, personal and environmental constraints.

How to Increase Optimism?

Appreciation and Gratitude

Directing attention to the positive aspects of the current situation, feeling thankful for what one has and for one’s circumstances. By appreciating what we like about our job, home, relationships, government, school, community etc. we can increase positive feelings and satisfaction leading to improvements in coping with stress, engagement and helping behaviour (Schneider, 2001). Taking time to reflect on gratitudes through journaling or letter writing can further increase optimistic thinking. Realistic optimism includes seeing the best in ourselves, our situation and in others.

Leniency and Reframing

When we evaluate past performances or events, we can choose to focus on the positive aspects of the situation, the use of reframing can help us identify what went well and seek to understand what behaviours and circumstances may have led to those successes. The entire experience may not have been positive but we can find positive actions to learn from and repeat in the future. Reframing a ‘problem’ to a ‘challenge’ can shift our thinking, helping us to see the potential in the challenge we face as an opportunity to bring about beneficial change. Reframing can increase our curiosity, shift our expectations and increase our sense of hope for what may come from the challenge. This flexible approach can influence our willingness to take risks and learn from the experience. Increasing leniency of expectations related to outcomes can expand the acceptability threshold, so we can determine that learning is an acceptable outcome, even if the overall outcome was not determined to be a success.

Opportunity Seeking and Growth Mindset

By seeing failure in terms of what it can teach us, this approach can lead to increased creative solutions and motivation resulting in feelings such as pride and satisfaction, rather than relief when success does occur. A focus on opportunity-seeking can encourage a learning perspective focused on discovery and adapting to situational changes. Taking on a growth mindset (Dweck, 2015) where you believe that your abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work can help create a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.

Realistic optimism can help increase goal-striving actions by promoting the creation of realistic and achievable goals, resulting in increased goal-attainment. What we want is to not cognitively discount possible risks but to behaviourally take action to minimize those risks, seeing opportunities for growth and development within the process, not over-focusing on the outcome.

Overall, adopting realistic optimism can have positive impacts on your health and relationships. This mindset also increases a willingness to persevere, learn and grow. If the objective is to increase your well-being, a thorough examination of how you are responding to setbacks and successes in your life can be a starting point. Reflecting on your beliefs about the reasons why something has happened can help to bring greater awareness of patterns of thinking that may have become accepted as fixed. By increasing cognitive flexibility it is possible to consciously move yourself towards realistic optimism, positively impacting the likelihood of desirable and personally meaningful outcomes, even in the face of challenges or perceived failures.

Written by Amy Capern, PITC Student Therapist. Learn More about Amy.​​



Baumeister, R. F. (1988). The optimal margin of illusion. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 8, 176-189

Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc..

Schneider, S. L. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: Meaning, knowledge, and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist, 56(3), 250–263.

Seligman, M. E. (1998; 2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. Vintage.

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