Be realistic: Positive thinking doesn't always yield positive results.
Optimism provides a multitude of benefits, across many facets of life. Researchers have linked looking on the bright side to everything from improved pain tolerance to increased longevity. There’s no denying the incredible power an optimistic outlook can have on your health, relationships, and performance.
But like anything in life, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Here are 5 ways an overly optimistic outlook can do more harm than good:
1. The Above-Average Effect
The majority of us tend to think we’re above average in a lot of ways. Countless research studies show our tendency to think we’re smarter, more popular, healthier, and even better drivers than those around us. Despite the fact that it’s statistically impossible for 80% of us to be "above average," the vast majority of people still insist they belong in the top percentile for many skills.
While self-confidence is enormously important in many aspects of life, exaggerating your skills isn’t helpful. Thinking, “I’m the smartest person in the room,” or “My leadership skills are superior,” may actually serve as a disadvantage if your sense of self isn’t realistic.
2. The “This Will Be Easy” Mindset
If you're not careful, an overly optimistic outlook can cross over into arrogance. Making assumptions like, “I could quit smoking cold turkey tomorrow if I wanted to,” or, “I don’t need to prepare for that test because I'm going to ace it,” can have disastrous consequences. Underestimating challenges leaves you unprepared and ill equipped—and believing that everything in life will come easy can actually damage your self-worth. After all, if challenges are easy, shouldn’t you always succeed the first time? Denying that success requires hard work and sharp skills sells yourself short.
3. Confusing Positive Thinking and Magical Thinking
Sometimes people muddle the line between positive thinking and magical thinking. The latter, the notion that your thoughts have the power to change the course of the entire universe, isn’t exactly backed by science—yet many people believe that if they wish hard enough they’ll win the lottery because their thoughts will increase their chances of hitting it big. When it comes to everyday events, assuming your thoughts on their own have the power to make anything happen can actually hold you back from reaching your greatest potential. After all, why bother getting a job if you know you’re headed for a big lottery payday (to use an extreme example)? Positive thinking only yields positive results when it’s combined with positive behavior.
4. Assuming Things Will Always Go According to Plan
While hoping for the best is one thing, denying that anything could go wrong is another. Convincing yourself that things will always go smoothly just isn’t a good plan, and yet how often do you hear people say things like, “I’m sure everything will be just fine,” as they plow ahead with no backup plan?
If a business leader says, “We’re doubling the amount of clients we’re taking on over the next year and that’s sure to generate revenue,” without considering the potential problems with that plan, his or her company will be unprepared for the realities they’ll likely face. Unrealistic optimism can cause you to ignore warning signs and deny potential negative consequences you may face.
5. Idealizing the Truth
It’s nice to want to see the good in everyone and in every opportunity, but optimism should never become delusional. Sometimes people think in order to be optimistic, they must minimize—or even deny—anything negative, even the truth. The reality is that there are bad people and unhealthy companies in the world that will take advantage of you if you don’t recognize the warning signs.
A willingness to overlook the fact that someone repeatedly lies could cause you to trust an untrustworthy person. And shrugging off a few unethical issues raised during a meeting about a new business venture may cause you to enter into a doomed situation. Healthy optimism should stop short of clouding your judgment.
Develop Balanced Thinking
Our inner dialogue impacts the way we feel and the way we behave each day. And just as dwelling on the negative isn’t healthy, focusing too much on the positive can also be detrimental. Learning how to identify and replace unproductive thoughts with healthier ways of thinking is a skill everyone can learn. Train your brain to be constructively optimistic. You’ll become most effective when you have balanced thoughts that recognize the silver lining with those that acknowledge the reality of the situation.