Define Realistic Optimism: Why Positive Thinking Alone Doesn’t Work

Optimism is an essential ingredient for a joyful and fulfilling life. But unchecked, it can be a recipe for frustration. That’s why we need a perspective that’s both real and practical. In this article, we’ll define realistic optimism and why it’s a better alternative than the good old positive thinking.

Positive thinking doesn’t work unless anchored into something real. The goal, therefore, is not to be “optimistic.” But to find or do something to be optimistic about. That’s Realistic Optimism. Realistic Optimism is about expecting good outcomes with reality as its basis. You don’t have hope for hope’s sake. You aren’t positive for positivity’s sake. Instead, your expectations are grounded in truth and reality.

The Prism Of Perspectives

It’s not what happens that determines the major part of your future. What happens, happens to us all. It is what you do about what happens that counts.

Jim Rohn

When light passes through a prism, it refracts light onto the other side. The result being we see different colors of a spectrum, often a rainbow. It’s true for physics as it’s true for life. When events happen to us, we respond to them depending on what perspective (prism) we look through.

Define Realistic Optimism

At any given event, there are at least 5 ways you can process and interpret them:

Unrealistic Pessimism

Is the most toxic response you can ever get. Maybe you’ve been around people who drain all your energy with their mere presence. They say toxic things, think ill thoughts, and see unfortunate events as lasting.

When bad things happen, they bathe themselves in self-pity. They always think that the sky is falling and there’s no better tomorrow. 


This is slightly better than unrealistic pessimism. There’s a healthier dose of skepticism and avoiding risk. Pessimists believe that things are about to get worse than they are.

Some pessimism is needed in life since it allows you to see the bigger picture. Thinking about what could go wrong can help you prevent them. But obsessing on things going wrong is an entirely different matter.

When I was still working in the corporate, I had a co-worker who found fault with anything. No matter how good an idea is, no matter the benefit it will give to people (I was working in HR), he criticized it.

For example, when my team and I thought of ways to give people bonuses based on their performance, he raised too many concerns. Primarily, trying to defend the old way of performance evaluation. Everyone in the company liked it because it showed clear progress on how you’ll go from one level to another. But he raised concerns because the old way gives bonuses without any comprehensive reason why.

At first, I was frustrated by the pushback. But I learned to appreciate it. The reason is simple: it helped me to think of ways to answer his concerns and make the initiatives better.


Realists accept things at face value. They look at facts, accept situations, and go their own merry way. Rarely, if ever, do they do something about their situations. Their motto in life: Que Sera Sera. Whatever will be, will be.

Realists have an accurate assessment of what’s going on in their world. They have data, facts, and information to support their thinking. They see the world as it is, not what they want it to be.

Unrealistic Optimism

Unrealistic Optimists think that things are going to get better… without them having to do anything. Their hope of a better future isn’t anchored on reality, but something of serendipity. They believe in affirmations, visualizations, and other forms of manifestations without action.

In my observation, Unrealistic Optimists are those who tend to spread toxic positivity. They tell others to look at the brighter side of life without providing any context. They pick “motivational quotes” and “inspirational words” to use as the Holy Grail of advice. But without binding these to reality, they’re nothing but empty words.

You need optimism to make it through the harsh realities of life. But high, unrealistic expectations bound only by hope will lead to frustrations. Getting burned a few times, people turn to pessimism as a safer option.

In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, psychologist Viktor Frankl shared a story of a fellow holocaust inmate. In it, this inmate had a dream sometime in February 1945 where a voice told him that he could ask anything. Frankl’s inmate asked when the war would end; to which it replied March 30.

The inmate, believing his dream, had his hopes up. But as the date drew nearer, the war became worse, without an ending in sight. When March 30 arrived, this inmate suddenly fell ill. Then the 31st came and he succumbed to typhus infection.

Frankl said, “The ultimate cause of my friend’s death was that the expected liberation did not come and he was severely disappointed. This suddenly load his body’s resistance against the latent typhus infection. His faith in the future and his will to live had become paralyzed and his body fell victim to illness and thus the voice of his dream was right”.

Unrealistic Optimism leads to frustration or worse, death.

Realistic Optimism

This is a mixture of realism and optimism. People like this look forward to better things without losing sight of what they need to do to make it happen. They accept the reality that there are things outside of their control, but they focus on what’s within it. Their hope is based on looking at things as objective as possible and doing something about it. Whether it works or not is not their concern since the outcome is out of their hands.

I believe this is the healthiest approach to life. It focuses not on what happens to us, but on what we do with what happens. We play with the cards we’re dealt, but we do our damn best to make the game (i.e. life) worthwhile.

Your Choice Of Perspective Matters

In July 2020, psychologists from Queen’s University in Canada published a paper on human thoughts. They suggest that an average person has an estimated 6,000 daily thoughts each day. This was opposed to the pseudopsychology myth that we have 60 to 80 thousand thoughts daily. That’s about 1 thought every 15 seconds.

Experts estimate that about 80% of those thoughts are negative. While there is no scientific study that proves how much of our thinking is positive or negative, I think it varies. Your overall outlook in life determines the kinds of thoughts you think. Ultimately, the way we think determines who we become. It becomes our identity.

Your choice of perspective matters because it dictates your experience of life. Whether you live with a perpetual cycle of frustration or joy is really up to you. It’s a choice you can make.

I remember reading Joy Tan-Chi Mendoza’s story of how she was raped by 7 men when she was 15. Reading about it still jerks tears into my eyes. It’s hard to even imagine being assaulted by 7 men in your own house. But she found forgiveness and hope in Christ.

She was able to process what happened and started healing because her hope was anchored in the love of Christ. She believes there was a purpose for why it happened. And now, she helps other abused people to get through their dark times.

Watch her interview here:

Live an inspired life,

Jeric Timbang