Realistic Optimism for Skeptics and Grumps

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Have you ever called someone out for being a negative Nancy, and gotten this gem in reply: “I’m not a pessimist, I’m a realist!” I never liked the suggestion that you can’t think positively and be realistic at the same time. So today, let’s talk about realistic optimism.

Realistic optimism is exactly what it sounds like. It’s choosing to see the positives and possibilities in a situation, without denying reality.

Do you consider yourself a realist instead of an optimist? If so, you likely see optimism as inherently unrealistic. Or maybe you already are a positive thinker, and are tired of people telling you that your view is unreasonable.

Either way, let’s look at it. Let’s see the difference between a realist and an optimist, figure out the disconnect between them, and carve a path to realistic optimism.

The Difference Between a Realist and an Optimist

Comparing optimism, pessimism, and realism is messy because you’ve got two apples and an orange, respectively. Being an optimist has no bearing on whether or not you can be a realist, and vice versa. In truth, there’s not much comparison to make.

An Optimist is someone who:

  • Thinks positively and hopefully toward the future
  • Confidently believes that good outcomes are possible 

And a pessimist is just the reverse of that. Equal opposites.

A Realist is someone who:

  • Sticks to beliefs and ideas they consider realistic
  • Steers away from ideas that are irrational or impossible
realistic optimism vs realistic pessimism graph

Looking at these criteria, is it possible for someone to be both optimistic and realistic? Absolutely! One says “I prefer to focus on positive ideas,” and the other says “I prefer to focus on ideas that are possible.”

Treating those as mutually exclusive sounds an awful lot like pessimism in disguise to me!

What Makes Someone Choose to Be a ‘Realist’?

The reason many people are drawn to a conservative, optimism-reluctant style of thinking (often labeled as realism) is that there is a certain psychological safety in it. The logic goes something like this:

If I expect a good outcome and experience a bad one, then I will be disappointed and it will hurt double. But if I expect a bad outcome, then I’ll either be right (and prepared for it), or I’ll be pleasantly surprised. So by not getting my hopes up, I can protect myself.

But here’s the disconnect: When realists talk about not wanting to get their hopes up, what they’re really picturing is getting their expectations up. Expectations are an attempt to exert control in situations over which we often have none. This is why they can be a huge barrier to happiness.

Getting your hopes up is not nearly as dangerous – hope is not the problem here.

Leveraging your happiness on how you expect something to go is a risky proposition, which is why realists try to play it safe and set low expectations. But one of the great things about optimism is that you don’t need to waste much of your time relying on expectations at all.

Understanding Realistic Optimism

Is being positive realistic, though? It certainly can be. And perhaps ironically, believing in an optimistic outcome actually makes it more realistic. As I’ve written about many times before, a positive mindset has a very real, practical impact on the way your life plays out.

Realistic optimism is not about expecting the best to happen, and ignoring evidence to the contrary. That’s an unhealthy form of optimism that does no one any good.

If you want a specific definition, here it is: Realistic optimism is acknowledging that the best outcome is never guaranteed, but choosing to strive for it anyway. It is hoping for a good result and giving yourself a fair chance to make it a reality.

realistic optimism quote over woman in office holding tablet

Positive thinking doesn’t have to rely all on fantasy. Reality is complex and unruly, and there is always a possibility of both positive and negative results. But realistic optimists see themselves as worthy of the positive possibilities. They know good things can happen to them, and they set out to make those things happen. Plus, they have more fun along the way. 

Example of Realistic Optimism

Let’s say that two coworkers, Amy and Phil, are both up for the same promotion. They have similar skillsets, experience, and backgrounds. On paper, they are equally qualified, but there’s only one opening.

Phil, the realist, wants the job but knows there’s no chance he’ll get it. There are too many candidates, and these things never go his way anyway. As a result, he doesn’t waste any extra effort or emotional energy trying. He hides his hope and expects the worst.

Amy, a realistic optimist, wants the shit out of this job. She is not denying reality: She knows it will be difficult, and she might not get the job, but she’s ready to fight for it anyway. This attitude pushes Amy to work harder, make her aspirations known to her bosses, and look for any opportunity to get herself closer to her goal.

Who do you think gets the job? I’ll give you a hint: I write non-fiction, I’m not very good at plot twists.

There are still no guarantees. Remember, we’re trying to get out of the expectations game here. But a person who gives themself a chance will almost always win out over one who doesn’t.

Realistic Pessimism

If positive thinking can influence your outcome, then negative thinking can, too.

When you believe that good things are possible, your mind quickly gets to work finding the paths to make them happen.

By the same token, if you tell yourself things won’t work out, then you’ll always see the problems and excuses first. You’ll effect the unfortunate results that you predicted, and prove yourself right.

Both pessimism and optimism can be realistic. That is because in a way, your mindset creates your reality.

Which reality would you prefer?

Be a Rational Optimist

For one last perspective on why optimism is inherently realistic, I want to zoom way out. Like, ‘all of human history’ out.

Optimism is one of my favorite topics to read about, and one of my favorite positive thinking books ever is The Rational Optimist, by Matt Ridley. In it, Ridley takes a broad, sweeping look at human history to show that the entire time, things have always gotten better.

There are hard days, hard years even. But on the scale of the last 200,000 years, there’s no mistaking the constant trend of human life improving.

Our world faces problems today that are real, and scary, and HUGE. But they are a result of how far we’ve come, and how much we’ve achieved so far. And if you look back to any given point in our history, you’ll see that virtually everybody is better off now than they were then. The only reasonable conclusion is that we’ll overcome today’s challenges as well.

Every part of this is true in our own lives, too. Things will keep getting better. So long as we keep believing, and keep working, there’s nothing in the world more realistic than optimism.

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Hey, I’m Sam. I created this blog to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

4 thoughts on “Realistic Optimism for Skeptics and Grumps”

  1. I like your explanation about “not getting your hopes up” vs “not getting your expectations up”. Very good and seldomly recognized point.

    • thanks! I think that is really the operative point here – hope is free and harmless, but expectations can get us into trouble if we’re not careful with them.


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