Positive Thinking Might Not Translate to Positive Outcomes, Says New Study


Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Or, maybe you sit somewhere more in the middle, and identify as a realist? The power of positive thinking has been lauded as a way to hack happiness but new research has proved otherwise.

A study conducted over 18 years by researchers at the University of Bath and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) looked at how the wellbeing of optimists, pessimists and realists fared long term, as reported by mindbodygreen.

Over the 18 year period, researchers performed an annual check-in with 1,600 participants based in the United Kingdom. In order to track how their mindset affected their lives, participants were asked questions about their life satisfaction, as well as their mental health.

Researchers also tracked the finances of the participants as well as the expectations of their finances over the time period in order to measure how expectations related to one’s wellbeing. They found that “when it comes to the happiness stakes, overestimating outcomes was associated with lower wellbeing than setting realistic expectations.”

The research estimates that while roughly 80% of people are considered to be “unrealistic optimists”, realists are the ones who come out on top thanks to their ability to make decisions “based on accurate unbiased assessments,” said researchers.

The data showed that those who had more realistic expectations had more positive outcomes compared to those who are eternally optimistic.

Pessimists didn’t fare that well either, which also undermines the thinking that low expectations limit disappointment and “presents route to contentment.”

“Plans based on inaccurate beliefs make for poor decisions and are bound to deliver worse outcomes than would rational, realistic beliefs, leading to lower well-being for both optimists and pessimists” said study co-author and associate professor in Business Economics in Bath’s School of Management, Dr. Chris Dawson.

“Particularly prone to this are decisions on employment, savings and any choice involving risk and uncertainty.”

While infusing positivity into your mindset isn’t a bad thing, you don’t have always have to be optimistic in order to live a happy life.

“I think for many people, research that shows you don’t have to spend your days striving to think positively might come as a relief,” Dr. Dawson said.

“We see that being realistic about your future and making sound decisions based on evidence can bring a sense of well-being, without having to immerse yourself in relentless positivity.”

These results could be down to counteracting emotions, say the researchers. For example, optimists can become overwhelmed by the anticipatory feelings of expecting the best and their happiness can fall as a result.

Pessimists, on the other hand, can become fixated on expecting the worst which can overtake the positive emotions from doing better than expected.

Co-author Professor David de Meza from LSE’s Department of Management explained how this relates to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Optimists will see themselves as less susceptible to the risk of Covid-19 than others and are therefore less likely to take appropriate precautionary measures,” he said.

“Pessimists, on the other hand, may be tempted to never leave their houses or send their children to school again. Neither strategy seems like a suitable recipe for well-being. Realists take measured risks based on our scientific understanding of the disease.”

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