Optimism: harness its real power

The old thinking that always looking through rose-coloured glasses will make life blissful is just that – old. And it can backfire. This modern, saner, smarter approach will make you healthier, happier and more successful.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

The old thinking that always looking through rose-coloured glasses will make life blissful is just that – old. And it can backfire. This modern, saner, smarter approach will make you healthier, happier and more successful.


You’ve heard that being positive is good for you. When your mood is upbeat, you feel happy and energised. You’re healthier, too: Recent research shows that optimists recover from illness faster, have stronger immune systems and live longer. That’s probably because they deal better with stress than other people, says Carsten Wrosch, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Concordia University. “When pessimists are more tense or anxious than usual, their levels of damaging cortisol, a stress hormone, shoot up. But that doesn’t happen for optimists. Their resiliency protects them.”

Yet, sometimes, looking on the bright side just feels wrong. If you get a traffic ticket on your way to work, spill coffee all over your favourite shirt, and show up late to an important meeting, it seems impossible, and even a little ridiculous, to try to maintain a positive frame of mind.

On this, your instincts are spot on. Experts are finding that Pollyannaish thinkhappy- thoughts-no-matter-what optimism is not only fake but can also be bad for your health. Tal Ben-Shahar, a lecturer on positive psychology, calls the phenomenon detached optimism, as in detached from reality. “Detached optimism is the belief that in challenging situations, everything will just work out. Problem is, many times it doesn’t,” he says. It’s the equivalent of wanting to get fit, joining a gym, then just expecting the muscles to appear.

What you should be striving for is grounded optimism – the belief that, with effort and dedication, you can overcome most challenges, Tal says.

Grounded optimists know how to use their positive expectations as fuel to achieve their goals, making them happier, healthier and more successful than other people. The good news is that while studies show that 25 to 30 percent of optimism is genetic, the rest comes from upbringing and life experiences, which means you can learn to become a grounded optimist. Now, get started.


“One of the easiest ways to increase grounded optimism is to plan out specific events to anticipate in the future,” says Tali Sharot, the author of The Optimism Bias. They can be as small as signing up for a fun weekend workout class or organising drinks with friends.

But bigger milestones are equally important: Schedule next year’s vacation or commit to a long-term fitness goal, like learning how to rock climb. “You should always be looking forward to something,” Tali says. It’s good for your mood, keeps your motivation strong, and helps you bounce back from setbacks. Imagine yourself enjoying your achievement too. Having a clear mental picture of your experience makes you more likely to put the work into getting there.


While optimists are tenacious, if it becomes clear that a goal can’t be attained, they disengage and cut their losses faster than pessimists, Carsten says. “Since optimists expect good things to happen in the future, when they realise that something is unrealistic, they identify the alternatives and feel OK with deviating from their original goal,” he explains.

To set yourself up for success, it can be helpful to build in alternatives early on. Rather than focusing on achieving one specific goal, create A, B and C goals for yourself.

Your A goal is your ideal (go to the gym five times a week), B is something that falls short but that you would still be happy with (do at least 20 minutes of yoga at home), and C is the better-thannothing option (do something active once a day, even if it’s just a five-minute walk). That way, if it becomes clear halfway through the week that A isn’t happening, B and C are within easy reach.


A dark cloud is a dark cloud. Instead of trying to see every obstacle as a blessing in disguise, accept it for what it is, but remind yourself that it’s temporary and that, eventually, things will get better.

“If you expect a situation to work out in a way that ultimately benefits you, you’ll be willing to invest a lot of effort and resources in it, even if you experience some bumps along the way,” Carsten says. For instance, say an injury keeps you out of the gym for weeks, derailing your training goals. A pessimist would give up then and there. But a grounded optimist reminds herself that while she feels disappointed, she’ll reach her goal – just a little later than planned. Then she figures out what she can do to get past the problem, like seeing a specialist, signing up for physical therapy, or doing low-impact workouts like swimming.

In essence, your mind-set is always forward-thinking and driven, keeping you excited for a future success.

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“Optimists expect the best for the future, but they also know when it’s time to cut their losses and move on.”

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