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Poll: Can You Be Too Optimistic?

I recently read a book called Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. Author Barbara Ehrenreich believes that optimism can be a bad thing.

I would agree in some cases.

Among her reasons is this that the determination to be cheery at all costs and always see the silver lining can lead to naivety. That we might ignore the science and evidence needed to make decisions on behalf of a “fake it till you make it” grin-fest.That we might stop putting out the effort to develop our critical thinking skills because we’re determined to shape our realities through our willpower alone, when a dose of logic would suffice.

I consider myself an optimist. I’d probably drive her crazy. But I did agree with a lot of what she said, although I think a lot of the book was more mean-spirited than it needed to be.

What do you think? Can you be too optimistic? At what point does optimism become a willful ignoring of reality? Is pessimism useful?


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  • Kris Wragg July 12, 2010, 5:07 am

    Some people definitely are too optimistic and they can be just as irritating as people that are overly pessimistic!

    I try and strike a balance generally and be realistic… what are the actual odds of something happening? how can I change those odds in my favour? What external sources can tip the favour in a positive or negative way?

    I think I do err on the side of optimism, mainly because I am becoming more adept at stacking the odds in my favour. Plus its more exciting to think that anything is possible if you really want it to happen!

    • Josh Hanagarne July 12, 2010, 3:51 pm

      Kris, your avatar looks pretty optimistic to me:)

  • Eric | Eden Journal July 12, 2010, 6:08 am

    I don’t think it possible to think positive too often or to be too positive. If you want to attract positive things, you have to think positive thoughts. Every action begins with a thought, so you may as well make those thoughts positive, so that you may see positive actions. The human mind is a powerful creator, why do you think the placebo is so effective, the mind gives it power.

    I’ve heard a new term crop up recently: Realistic Optimism. I think it’s meant to bridge the gap between realism and optimism. Staying positive while remaining grounded to the real possibilities.

    Honestly thouth, I think that’s what Optimism is anyway. It’s believing in the best possible outcome. Keeping in my the word possible. Optimists aren’t hoping for the impossible, we’re looking for the best possibility.

    Those that I’ve seen argue against the positivity movement seem set on the fact that folks are being unrealistically positive, but I don’t think that’s usually the case. Not that I’ve seen or experienced anyway.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 12, 2010, 3:51 pm

      “Optimists aren’t hoping for the impossible, we’re looking for the best possibility”

      I really like that.

  • John July 12, 2010, 6:51 am

    I am absolutely a positive person, but I think there is a difference between having a positive outlook and being oblivious to reality. Like most things in life, I think that striking a balance is the key. Although if you’re going to err on one side or the other, there’s no doubt that the side of positive thinking is the way to go.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 12, 2010, 3:52 pm

      So what’s the adjective for being oblivious to reality?

      • John July 12, 2010, 3:56 pm

        “my mother-in-law” 🙂

  • Todd July 12, 2010, 6:58 am

    +1 for John. There is a difference between being optimistic and walking through life with blinders on while whistling a happy tune. I’m not the one to talk to about eastern philosophy, but the idea of Yin & Yang holds water for me.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 12, 2010, 3:53 pm

      Dan John has been talking about yin and yang in the strength world for a long time. The concept has a lot of meaning to me as well.

  • Hillary July 12, 2010, 7:49 am

    I’m an optimistic person, but I find myself frustrated at people who stick their head in the sand. Sometimes life is outrageous and those not so sunny feelings are what fuel you to help create change.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 12, 2010, 3:55 pm

      Well said. I recently listened to The Secret on audio (the audio production was insane). The author says that anyone who isn’t wealthy is blocking wealth from their thoughts. Including anyone in a country where everyone is impoverished. Telling those people to just “pep up and believe” doesn’t really do it for me.

      “Sometimes life is outrageous…” You’ve got that right.

  • Heather July 12, 2010, 7:52 am

    Good observation, Todd! There IS a difference between being positive and walking through life with blinders on, fakin’ it till ya make it. I think the point that Ms. Ehrenreich missed with her poll is that you can still be positive and still think critically, and I also think she mixes up the idea of CRITICAL THINKING and CRITICISM OF AN IDEA OR SITUATION. And yes, Josh, I bet the rest of the book was extremely mean-spirited. Most folk who think there’s too MUCH optimism in the world are some of the meanest and most pessimistic bastards that have ever walked.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 12, 2010, 3:56 pm

      I’m not sure she would disagree with you, Heather. A lot of her arguments make a lot of sense, but the delivery clouded it for me.

  • Boris Bachmann July 12, 2010, 1:49 pm

    There’s optimism, and then there’s Candide saying “All’s for the best in this the best of all possible worlds” as the world collapses around him. On the other hand, I’ve met a lot of self-proclaimed “realists” who are nothing but pessimists.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 12, 2010, 3:56 pm

      Oh man, I need to read Candide again. And again.

  • Daisy July 12, 2010, 5:52 pm

    It’s alright to focus on the positive, not sweat the small stuff, as long as we realize that there are serious issues, too. Some of what bothers us SHOULD bother us. It’s the big stuff, and we need to address it.

  • K.sol July 13, 2010, 1:59 pm

    I think the more powerful issue Ehrenreich addresses is that the whole positive thinking thing has been used to blame people for their misfortunes. That is, if positive attracts positive, then if your life is a mess, then it must be your fault. Never mind if your child just contracted a horrible illness and your job was just outsourced to the other side of the world. If bad things happen to you & you can’t bounce back, it’s your fault because you have the wrong mindset. It’s one thing to look on the bright side of life (recommended). It’s another thing to try to turn positive thinking into its own control-the-world type of magic. If you think a positive attitude can allow you (or anyone else) to do ANYTHING, then there’s a problem.

  • cinderkeys July 14, 2010, 12:06 am

    Funny you should bring this book up now. I bought it recently and am looking forward to reading it.

    There’s nothing wrong with having a positive outlook if that’s how you genuinely feel. There’s a lot to be said for noticing and acknowledging the silver linings. The problem is when people want you to be like that all the time. K.sol said it well. Sometimes we’re entitled to wallow in a little self-pity. Sometimes attempting a positive outlook simply feels wrong.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 14, 2010, 8:52 am

      If you’d like to come review it as a host, I’d be happy to host you.

      • cinderkeys July 14, 2010, 11:48 am

        How long’s the offer good for? 🙂 I suppose that would be an incentive to finish the Seth Godin book I’ve been creeping through forever.

  • Asatar Bair July 14, 2010, 9:02 am

    For me, it’s about being as optimistic as possible without denying reality or my own feelings. Feeling sadness, pain, anger, etc. — these emotions are an important part of life and should be felt, not denied. But the truth is, you can create the reality you desire with consistent effort.

    • K.sol July 14, 2010, 9:58 am

      “But the truth is, you can create the reality you desire with consistent effort.”

      In a word, no. This is what the book warns against. This can be magical thinking.

      Yes – you create your own attitude toward your reality. I’ve been told there is really only one decision you make in life: do you look around you & see death, or see life. I’ve known people who can melt down over a broken fingernail vs. people dealing with incredible adversity who face life with kindness & cheerfulness.

      Yes – you can influence your reality. You can set goals & priorities, work toward the things you want. You can “make your own luck” as they say.

      But what you cannot do is create your own reality. You can make yourself lovable, but you cannot make someone love you. You can work hard & choose your career wisely, but you cannot draw money to you by thinking positively. You can eat right & exercise & still get whammied by a serious medical problem.

      To me, magical thinking is when you believe that by doing or thinking the right thing you control things you do not control. This is the dangerous thread she writes about, both in terms of people making poor decisions based on unrealistic thinking, and in terms of kicking people when they’re down, because they must have done this to themselves with their attitude.

      There’s a fine line there. A balance that gets missed. To some extent you make your own luck, and to some extent you have to face a certain number of immovable objects that life throws at you. There’s a big difference between taking your power over the things you can control to influence your reality and thinking you create it.

      Forgive the long rant. 🙂

      • cinderkeys July 14, 2010, 11:57 am

        There’s a big difference between taking your power over the things you can control to influence your reality and thinking you create it.


        If you face a serious medical problem — I think hers was breast cancer — then you have choices about how you can deal with it. You DON’T get to choose whether you get breast cancer in the first place. And while I think it’s possible that your attitude can have some effect on your chances of recovery, it’s not going to kill you or save you all by itself.

        I had a friend who never wore a seatbelt while driving. He believed that wearing a seatbelt would mean thinking more about the possibility of an accident, which would make it more likely to happen. One day he got into a minor accident sans seatbelt. He always wore it after that. 🙂

  • jayapradha July 19, 2010, 6:48 am

    Being optimistic is the way you see life as it goes. There is a lot of difference in having a possitive thinking and a possitive attitude.When it come me, it is the positive attitude that creates the possitive thinking in your life.