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Why Realistic Thinking Is Better Than Optimistic Thinking

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on September 21, 2021

Many think that having an optimistic outlook is the secret to happiness. However, optimism and pessimism both have risks. Optimists may get easily disappointed if they’re always assuming good things will happen. Pessimists can tend to have more depressed or anxious feelings. There’s actually another option that’s all-around better for your health, and that’s realistic thinking.

Below you’ll find evidence for why realistic thinking is better than optimistic thinking. 

Don’t Ignore Reality

Both pessimistic and optimistic thinking puts your mind in a fantasy world. You’re either thinking about the worst thing that could happen or the best possible outcome. These ways of thinking don’t account for reality. 

Optimistic and pessimistic thinking are at the ends of a spectrum. And the midpoint is realism. Realistic optimists also have a specific way of looking at the world. If you think this way, you’re more likely to be cautiously hopeful for good outcomes, but this hope doesn’t keep you from taking the necessary steps to achieve your goals. 

When you focus on realistic thinking, you’re prioritizing reality, which can help you understand situations you’re in instead of being greatly disappointed or fooling yourself. 

Embrace the Present

Another important part of realistic thinking is setting your mind to the present. When you think realistically, you’re tuned into what’s going on around you. You might start paying more attention to things like: 

  • Animal sounds around you
  • How conversations with loved ones make you feel
  • The feeling of the sun on your face
  • How your body feels during a long walk

The point is to not focus on what could be or what isn’t. Rather, you focus on your present moment and how it helps you right now.

Highest Well-Being

Studies have shown that having realistic beliefs can mean better well-being. Researchers have looked at the level of expectations and compared that with an observed range of expectations. Within these parameters, studies see the highest-ranking of well-being associated with realistic thinking. 

Realistic thoughts. This thinking will lead you to better well-being and coping skills regardless of the outcome of a situation. If you are incredibly optimistic, you may have negative psychological costs later on if things aren’t as you expect. 

Realistic optimists. These people tend to have more hopeful thoughts attached to their realism. Realistic optimists have a belief that they will succeed, but they also know they have to work towards success. They’re more likely to: 

  • Plan carefully
  • Have persistence through challenges
  • Choose the right strategies
  • Put in an effort towards goals
  • Be prepared

Don’t stress about being positive. People who are focused on making things go the way they hope they will often get let down or end up with worse outcomes. When you set your expectations around rational thinking, you’re less likely to be anxious about the outcome. Even optimists misperceive outcomes and feel intense emotions. These feelings can lower your overall well-being. 

Encourages Mindfulness

Another benefit of realistic thinking is attaching yourself to the present moment. By thinking about the present, you’re intentionally being mindful. A good mindfulness exercise includes: 

  • Sitting quietly 
  • Closing your eyes
  • Focusing on your breathing
  • Slowly becoming aware of sounds, sensations, and ideas
  • Letting each thought or feeling pass through you without judgment
  • Focusing on your breathing again

In psychology, the idea is that you can come to know your true and honest self through mindfulness. Some view it as healthy to find who you are and accept yourself in your truest form without any judgment. A mentally healthy person perceives reality as it is, and doesn’t twist it to fit their wishes. 

If you’re not able to accept reality for what it is, you may have more feelings of stress and anxiety. This cognitive dissonance creates tension in your mind. That can take away from your mindfulness practice. 

While optimists have long been praised for their mental well-being, it turns out that realistic thinking is healthier for your mind in the long run. Creating reasonable expectations for yourself and those around you will help you live a less stressful life. 

It's time to drop pessimism and optimism and start thinking realistically. When you train yourself to rationalize and think critically about the situation, you're more likely to expect reasonable outcomes. This will set you up for better thoughts and mental health in the future. 

If you need to talk to someone about stress, anxiety, or depression, you can reach out to a mental health professional. They'll be able to speak with you about your experience. 

WebMD Feature

Sources

SOURCES:

The Conversation: “Why realism is the key to wellbeing – new research.”

Current Opinion in Psychiatry: “Costs and benefits of realism and optimism.”

Harvard Business Review: “Be an Optimist Without Being a Fool.”

Harvard Health Publishing: “An outlook better than optimism?”

Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: “Neither an Optimist Nor a Pessimist Be: Mistaken Expectations Lower Well-Being.”

PsychCentral: “Realism and Optimism: “Do You Need Both?”

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