May 05 / Simcha

Rethinking Positive Emotion (A.M. Paul)

Based on an article by Annie Murphy Paul, The Uses and Abuses of Optimism and Pessimism, in Psychology Today (11.01.11)

In recent years it feels like we’ve all been ordered to always “think positive” by an army of experts in any number of fields. Doctors inform us that optimism improves our health and helps us live longer. Corporate coaches advise us that optimistic employees earn more money and climb the career ladder more quickly. “Positive psychology” researchers produce studies showing that optimistic people are happier and have more friends.

There is currently a a pendulum swing within the field of mental health away from one-size-fits-all optimism, says Lawrence Sanna, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.  The positive psychology movement arose in reaction to the almost exclusive focus of 20th-century psychologists on pathology and dysfunction, he notes.  “Now we’re realizing that happiness and optimism are not a complete answer, either.”

Daring to challenge the preeminence of optimism as our most sought-after state of mind, psychologists are offering a more nuanced view.  They are finding that flexible use of strategic (as opposed to black-or-white dispositional) optimism and pessimism — targeted to respond to the demands of a specific situation — may actually be more effective than a blanket policy of all optimism, all the time. Says Edward Chang, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan: “The field is starting to recognize that many of us use these mind-sets in a flexible way, and that this flexibility has a lot of advantages.”



  • Positive assumptions about the future may allow us to tolerate stressful situations that would otherwise be unbearable.
  • Optimism can act as a bulwark against anxiety; it fills us with an expansive sense of our own power to shape events, overruling the doubts and worries that might otherwise paralyze us into inaction.
  • Optimism can buoy us up when things go wrong; deluged by feelings of hopelessness and despair, optimism is the raft we cling to until the skies clear.
  • Optimism allows individuals to think more flexibly and creatively.  With an optimistic mind-set, our belief  that things will work out allows us to come up with innovative solutions.
  • Optimism motivates people to work as hard as they possibly can on their long-shot ventures, and buffers them from the ever-present risk of failure.



  • Pessimism can assist us manage our feelings. By spinning down our expectations, it insulates us from crushing disappointment when things don’t go our way.
  • Pessimism is an ego-protection strategy; if we adopt a pessimistic attitude about our chances, we aren’t nearly as affected emotionally when we lose out as we had predicted.
  • Pessimism can permit a feeling of delighted relief and surprise when, despite our self-protective pessimism, we do manage to get what we wanted.
  • Pessimism can be useful at moments when, successful before, we may be lulled into laziness and overconfidence; imagining all the things that might go wrong, we are spurred to take action to head off the potential catastrophes we conjure and prevent them from happening.
  • Bracing ourselves for a negative outcome gives us the chance to work through in advance the emotional implications of the anticipated negative event, and the time to put some supports into place.
  • In the face of an objectively grim reality — pessimism can be an ally.  According to a recent study, elderly people who are realistic and even pessimistic about the likelihood of experiencing negative life events — such as the approaching deaths of close friends and relatives — are actually less vulnerable to depression than elderly people who are more optimistic. (The International Journal of Aging and Human Development)

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Even Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology (and author of Authentic Happiness, 1990), is rethinking the place of positive emotion.  In his latest book, Flourish, he notes that we should not be seeking happiness, but rather “a life of well-being,” one comprised of four parts, of which only one is positive emotion (the three others are engagement with what one is doing; a sense of accomplishment; and good relationships).

“The idea that optimism is always good is a caricature. It misses realism, it misses appropriateness, it misses the importance of negative emotion.”  Seligman, still an advocate of optimism, says it must be paired with “reality testing” to make sure our expectations do not lead us astray in propelling us where we want to go.

Both optimism and pessimism can help us get there — smiley face not required.