Is Optimism Ever Unhealthy?

Research shows that optimism can sometimes backfire.

Posted Feb 08, 2019

Goodluz/Shutterstock
Source: Goodluz/Shutterstock

As children, many of us were taught to think positively. Parents and teachers may have told us to “always look on the bright side” or “keep a positive attitude.” Many self-help books even instruct that optimism is the secret to a healthy and successful life.

There’s no doubting that optimism is a powerful force. According to hundreds of studies, people high in optimism are happier, experience lower depression and anxiety, achieve their goals more often, show greater persistence in the face of setbacks, and even cope with physical illness better than their less optimistic counterparts. Optimism is clearly a good thing.

But those same well-meaning parents and teachers who encouraged us to think positively may also have offered us the opposite advice: "Don’t get your hopes up, or you’ll jinx it."

So, which is it? Is optimism good for us or not? 

According to research, the answer is “both,” depending on the circumstances. While being a positive person in general is a good thing, optimism can backfire when it strays too far from reality. In particular, too much optimism can lead people to believe they are less vulnerable to common problems than they actually are.

Known as the optimism bias, most of us occasionally fall prey to this tendency. Next time you’re at a dinner party, try the following experiment: Ask people to raise their hands to indicate whether they believe they’re at greater risk, equal risk, or less risk than the average person of their same age, gender, and background for virtually any common negative event, from having a heart attack to being mugged. Defying the statistical odds, most people will say they’re at less risk.

This is exactly what psychologist Neil Weinstein found in his first study on the phenomenon in 1980. He listed out more than 20 negative events, ranging from relatively small (your car turns out to be a lemon) to catastrophic (developing cancer), and asked college students to estimate their risk for each. For nearly all of the events, four times as many students thought they were safer than average than thought they were at greater risk than average.

As nice as it might sound to be unrealistically optimistic, it has its downsides. Namely, it may lead people to take unnecessary risks. Studies of more than 20 health issues show that people are less likely to take precautions when they perceive that their risk for a disease is low. When people believe their chances of having a heart attack are low, for instance, they’re less likely to eat healthy diets and more likely to smoke and consume alcohol.

The optimism bias may even make people more likely to text while driving. Sending text messages while behind the wheel is unequivocally dangerous, increasing the likelihood of accidents and near-accidents by 23 times. Nonetheless, people often dramatically underestimate their personal risk. In a national survey of more than a thousand drivers in New Zealand, only 41 percent of people said they thought texting while driving was “very unsafe," while 30 percent even said they thought texting while driving was either “very safe” or at least “moderately safe.” So, it shouldn’t be surprising that the majority of people said they regularly read or send text messages while driving.

Unfortunately, unrealistic optimism isn’t as easy to remedy as you might think. Education alone doesn’t seem to help. In a study appearing in the journal Health Psychology, researchers approached people in public places on the campus of Rutgers University, asking them to fill out an anonymous survey about their perceived risk of heart disease and alcoholism. Just before completing the questionnaire, some participants were given information about the risk factors for developing these conditions. The researchers hoped that this information would help participants come to realistic conclusions about their actual risk. Unfortunately, no differences were found between those provided with this information and those not. Both groups underestimated their risk. 

As gloomy as this might sound, it doesn’t mean the optimism bias is unshakable. People aren’t unrealistically optimistic at all times or for all events. For instance, people are less likely to be unrealistically optimistic about things they perceive to be beyond their control. That’s because when people perceive control over an outcome, they tend to base their predictions of risk on their intentions. If someone intends to go on a diet or start exercising, then that person may perceive his or her risk of heart disease to be lower. The problem is, of course, that most of us don’t follow though on all of our good intentions.

And perhaps that’s the most important lesson to be learned from this research: What often separates realistic optimism from unrealistic optimism is whether we actually act on our intentions. If all of us would follow through on our plans to eat healthier, exercise regularly, or pay an occasional visit to the doctor, perhaps our unrealistic expectations wouldn’t be so unrealistic after all.

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