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Resilience Requires Realistic Optimism

By Philip Chard, psychotherapist, author and trainer

There are toothy optimists who are entirely blinded by the sunny side of life. Then, there are gnarly pessimists who feel like the world around them is the Fourth Circle of Hell. Either mindset can undermine one’s capacity to be resilient in the face of adversity.

While die-hard optimists often benefit, mentally and physically, from their upbeat disposition, particularly compared with equally entrenched pessimists, when things go bad, their perspective can prove an Achilles’ heel.

Blind optimism is characterized, in part, by naivete, and, in other respects, by denial. It’s a fragile mental bubble in a world teeming with sharp experiential edges. So, when calamity punctures this bubble, a “Don’t worry about a thing” optimist is ill-prepared to handle the psychological and spiritual aftershocks. These folks are facile in being positive, but, when thrown by circumstance into the deep end of the existential pool, many prove inexperienced rookies in the challenging game of life.

Are there exceptions? Always. But most often these appear in those who mix their optimism with heavy doses of realism. More on that shortly.

But, first, what about pessimists? Well, they have their own way of arriving at a bad place, one they inhabit all or most of the time. Many suffer from chronic anger, bitterness and depression, all of which adversely impact their well-being, both physical and mental. When they run into bad happenings, it only serves to reinforce their pre-existing bias that everything and everybody sucks. They are already stuck in a psychological hole, sometimes a deep one. When nasty things happen, they just dig it deeper.

Vulnerable to Life

Consequently, both beaming optimists and irascible pessimists are vulnerable to serious life challenges, as some have unhappily discovered during our version of the plague. This results from the inability of these two opposing mindsets to promote emotional resilience, that mental bounce-back attribute that helps us rise again when life knocks us to the mat.

There clearly is a place for optimism and the positivity it can engender, but in the absence of corresponding realism, this mindset becomes untethered from reality, leaving one slow to adapt when you-know-what hits the fan. As for pessimists, being like Eeyore and always expecting the worst doesn’t make it any easier to handle adversity. Unrealistic expectations, whether high or low, fail to provide a stable emotional platform.

So, we know a middle ground mindset is vital in promoting resilience in the face of life’s tempests. But exactly what kind of mindset?

The most oft-used term for this way of looking at the world and one’s life within it is “realistic optimism.” As the term implies, these folks harbor an upbeat, action-oriented attitude. However, in equal measure, they dispassionately assess the challenges they face and what will be required to meet them. Their optimism is grounded in reality.

Read More: Optimism is Realism

More than anything else, a realistic optimist emphasizes effort over outcome. When faced with tough challenges, they don’t expect to prevail or succeed, but they do expect to give it their best, whatever the result. After all, more often than not, we lack full control over outcomes. We can, however, control how much effort we apply.

Read More: Optimism and Action

This runs counter to our prevailing cultural value endorsing success as the measure of a life well-lived. For example, I’ve heard many folks decry the use of so-called participation trophies for children’s sports, feeling they send the wrong message to the kids; that being, it’s OK to lose.

Well, if you’re a realistic optimist, you actually believe it is OK to lose provided one has given it one’s best shot.

In a society obsessed with winning, success and keeping score, the idea that effort matters more than results can seem like cultural heresy. However, it is precisely this attitude that affords realistic optimists a degree of emotional resilience that die-hard optimists and pessimists often find lacking.

Perhaps the mindset of a realistic optimist is best summarized by this quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “Satisfaction lies in the effort, not the attainment. Full effort is full victory.”


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