How to Be an Optimist AND a Realist

Issues and misunderstandings about optimism are a major cause of depression, even in intelligent people. People fear that optimism means pollyannaism, wearing rose-colored glasses, and not being objective. Today, especially, it’s seen as ‘uncool’ not to be cynical and negative; naïve and ‘in denial’ to look for the positive.

Because of all the confusion and intellectual dishonesty in today’s culture, I advocate what I call optimistic realism.The blending of these two terms—optimism and realism—implies that one must adhere to and recognize objective reality at all times; but do so in the psychological context of vigorously, consistently, and aggressively looking for the positives.

Depressed people say this to me all the time, when I point out a silver lining to their psychological cloud: ‘I hadn’t thought of it that way. You have a point.’ Precisely. If you’re not predisposed to look for positives, you won’t find them. If you don’t find them, then you’re not ever going to feel good. You’re going to feel morose, malevolent, and down.

What you think—including what you look for and don’t look for out there, in reality—determines what you feel. What, you ask? It’s not my brain physiology? No, it’s not your brain physiology. Brain physiology can be relevant, but not determining. Your ideas, outlook, values and philosophy of life are what’s determining.

I have had the opportunity to know and interact with a handful of people who are successful, not only in the business or career context but who also are psychologically successful. By ‘psychologically successful’ I mean: possessing a minimum of (or no) inner turmoil, and no major or persisting emotional conflicts which prevent enthusiastic enjoyment of life.

One essential quality in such people, I have learned, is optimistic-realism. It is the presence of this quality in the few happy people I find—and its absence in the many unhappy people I encounter—which has convinced me of its importance.

Optimistic-realism results in an unspoken sense that ‘important life goals can be achieved—including by me.’ There is also a sense of being ‘the center of my own universe,’ while at the same time recognizing that others are, and should be, the center of their own universes. None of this to imply, of course, that there is no objective reality and that everything is subjective. It does imply that each determines what is most important in life, consistently and persistently acts on these conclusions, and then accepts the consequences, good or bad—learning and correcting as necessary. Connected to optimistic-realism is the concept of psychological entrepreneurism—identified in my most recent book, Bad Therapy Good Therapy: And How to Tell the Difference. Psychological entrepreneurism means exploiting negative facts and turning them, where possible, into positives. If you suffer a career disappointment, you use this as a chance to pursue a different career with more opportunities. If you suffer a romantic loss or rejection, you transform this negativity into the positive pursuit of other goals.

Dr. Emmanuel Foroglou, a political refugee from Greece drawing upon his own personal experiences, says the following about psychological entrepreneurism:

‘The concept of psychological entrepreneurism means turning a negative into a positive’that is, trying to find out what opportunities are created from a negative occurrence and using them to further one’s life. Negative events occur in everybody’s life, so the psychological entrepreneur is the person who learns from them and uses them to further his own life. In my case, the most obvious negative event has been my immigration situation, but I have used this experience to become a spokesman for freedom. Having learned from my experience, I can use this knowledge to further advance ideas in addition to the abstract knowledge acquired from books and lectures; now I have the first-hand experience of knowing what it’s like to be subject to the false and arbitrary whims of a faceless government bureaucracy, and that has certainly enhanced my ability to defend reason and liberty in today’s world.’

He goes on:

‘For example, if you lose your job, this gives you the opportunity to look for a better job. The loss of a romantic partner, as painful as it may be, gives one the opportunity to seek fulfillment in romance in other directions. The same thing would apply to having to move to a different city—for example, to attend school, or because of a new job—you may lose some of the values you had in your old environment, but you will find some new ones. So any negative event is bound to have some opportunity if you look hard enough to find them; and, if events are beyond one’s control, then it is only rational to make the best use possible of those opportunities.’

Why are so many people skeptical of this positive approach?

‘One reason is that as a result of giving up their minds, people expect happiness to be handed to them on a platter instead of having to pursue it’When something negative happens, they are so fatalistic that they are driven to despair, which renders them impotent in trying to analyze the situation and finding any opportunities which they could use to better their lives.’

Psychological entrepreneurs, as Dr. Foroglou points out, see opportunities even in objectively bad or mediocre contexts. They turn negatives into at least partial positives. They know not merely how to survive, but also how to flourish.