Positive psychology and its promotion of optimism have become firmly established in the popular imagination now. The idea that people who are optimistic will fare better than people who are pessimistic has received a great deal of coverage and has become widely accepted – despite the fact that it grossly oversimplifies the complex dynamics of human experience.
The self-help and self-improvement literature are full of examples of simplistic approaches to personal problems and challenges, and the uncritical acceptance of optimism as the way to go can now be added to that list.
So, what is wrong with being optimistic? ‘Nothing’ is the short answer, provided that optimism is justified in the particular circumstances, provided that it is reasonable to focus on the positives of the situation at that time. But sometimes – often even – optimism is not justified. In fact, there will be times when pessimism is by far the better approach to certain circumstances. Hoping against hope in situations where there are no grounds for hope can serve only to distort the situation and present us with a false picture of what we are dealing with. There are clearly times when it is wise to give up and accept the negatives of the situation, rather than naively disregard them by focusing narrowly on the positive elements.
So, should we adopt a pessimistic outlook, then? Negative psychology rather than positive psychology? ‘No’ is the answer to this, as that would amount to falling into the same trap of adopting a distorted, one-sided view of human experience – except this time from a negative point of view, rather than a positive one.
Where does that leave us? Well, that is where a realistic approach comes in. Realism, in this context, means recognising that there are positive and negative features to life in general and to every specific situation we encounter as we live our lives. Optimists see the glass as half full; pessimists see it as half empty, each focusing on just one aspect of the positivity-negativity continuum and failing to see that the glass is half full and half empty. Optimism and pessimism involve seeing only one side of a complex picture, while realism involves getting a more balanced overview.
As is so often the case where complex issues are oversimplified in the quest for straightforward answers to life’s challenges, it boils down to the fundamental mistake of seeing the situation in ‘either or’ terms, rather than ‘ both and’. The technical term for this is ‘reductionism’ – complex, multilevel phenomena are reduced to simple, single-level answers. This is a potentially very dangerous mistake to make, as it can lead to some very unwise, unbalanced decisions that have not been based on a careful consideration of what is involved.
Realism, then, involves adopting a more flexible approach to the situations we are called upon to deal with and to make balanced decisions about the positives and negatives involved, so that we have a fuller picture of the challenges we face. Unthinkingly adopting either a fully optimistic or a fully pessimistic approach simply serves to produce a one-sided picture. Realism, by contrast, provides a foundation for reflective practice in which we can weigh up the positives and negatives and develop a more balanced understanding.
Realism will not present us with simple, straightforward answers, but then we should be wary of any approach that tries to convince us that there are simple, straightforward solutions to life’s challenges. Assuming that there are such things out there for us to stumble across is, in itself, far from realistic.