Realistic Optimism

“What we want is not blind optimism but flexible optimism – optimism with its eyes open. We must be able to use pessimism’s keen sense of reality when we need it, but without having to dwell in its dark shadows.”[1]

A glance at the selection of self-help books in a bookstore or on Amazon and you will find dozens of books promoting the idea that positive thinking enables you to achieve anything; you just have to want it enough. This message reached its zenith with the Law of Attraction in ‘The Secret’[2]. Apparently, you are made of energy, and you attract like energy. Thus, if you think positive thoughts, then positive things will happen. If you want a Ferrari, think positive thoughts about having an Ferrari and the frequencies from these thoughts will travel through the ether and create your Ferrari!!

This bizarre nonsense is an easy sell because while promising untold wealth it also absolves the positive thinker from having to confront reality.

“But we cannot levitate ourselves into [happiness] by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.”[3]

Relentlessly positive thinkers ignore risks (because doing so creates the wrong type of negative frequencies), fail to make contingency plans and then are ill-equipped psychologically to deal with problems.

There is another, less extreme branch of the positivity industry. Here the foundation of success is an inspiring vision, scoped out in every detail. This vision, so the mantra goes, lights a fire inside you and galvanizes you into effective, relentless action. Unfortunately, serious research suggests that such a vision often inspires inertia rather than action.[4] At the beginning, the positive imagery has the desired effect because your conscious brain is in control. But your unconscious mind cannot distinguish between a compelling vision of success and an actual memory. So the drive to action dissipates because, in your unconscious mind, the vision has been achieved.

Therefore, as a realistic optimist you should aim for the optimal balance between positive and negative thinking. Identifying possible problems in advance is not being defeatist provided you then identify potential solutions. A good habit to develop is to capture the three most significant benefits of achieving a particular goal and then the three biggest obstacles you will face. 


WOOP is a simple model for applying mental contrasting. 

W – Wish

What are you trying to achieve? Capture this in under 10 words.

O – Outcome

What are the benefits of achieving your wish? Take some time to reflect on this, visualizing what life will be like and, particularly, how you will feel: proud, powerful, secure, excited, connected …

O – Obstacles

What could get in the way of achieving your wish that you can affect? WOOP is particularly concerned with internal barriers, such as procrastination, irrational thinking or lacking emotional control. Identify the ways in which you may self-sabotage.

[Of course, you can go further and identify other barriers over which you may be able to exert influence. For instance, winning a contract from a new customer may be difficult because they are unaware of your expertise. You can do something about this through marketing etc.]

P – Planning

Finally, using the IF, THEN approach described earlier, develop plans for overcoming the obstacles. How will you, for instance, overcome procrastination? (“IF I feel the temptation to procrastinate, THEN I will use the Pomodoro Technique to get started.”]

WOOP is particularly valuable when you are feeling confident. It will overcome the unconscious ‘ticking off’ of the vision and help you to concentrate your energies where they are most needed.[5]

[1] Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman


[3] Barbara Ehrenreich, Smile Or Die

[4] Oettingen and Kappes: Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 47, 2011

[5] Another interesting perspective on this comes from Derek Sivers who cites research revealing that when you tell someone else your goals, and receive positive feedback from the other person, you are less likely to achieve them. TED video here: