On all my other posts about optimism at least one person commented something like: “I’m not a pessimist, I’m a realist”. Is realism better than optimism? What does it mean to be a realist anyway? Although our modern notion of ‘being realistic’ is much closer to standard pessimism, i.e. downplaying the good things and seeing the bad as inevitable, a true realist is someone who makes completely unbiased judgements and who doesn’t see things through any kind of filter, neither a positive nor a negative one. In principle, the realist’s way of thinking should be the most objective one. However, from a psychological point of view, a completely unbiased perspective is neither possible nor productive (at least not always). What counts is knowing when to think like a realist and when not to, something optimists are particularly good at. If you’re a die-hard realist, read on to find out how to get the most out of your ‘need for objectivity’ :)
First of all, neither way of thinking is inherently more biased than the other. Every situation bears a million different details to consider and just as many memories to compare them to. To make a completely accurate judgment of any event, we would have to process a huge amount of information, something we are just not capable of. But we can focus on a few pieces of information. Two people are likely to feel very differently about the same event simply because they highlight different pieces of the available information. Someone with a positive mindset will concentrate on other aspects of a situation than someone with a negative mindset, but neither of them are necessarily in the wrong. Wanting to adopt a more positive mindset does’t mean you have to brainwash or lie to yourself, it just means you have to focus on different aspects of a situation.
Your state of mind will determine how you predict future events and also, how you evaluate events as they happen. These two factors reinforce each other, because the predictions we make about the future are derived from the information we have stored about past experiences. Compared to pessimists, optimists evaluate their daily events from a more positive perspective, which means they are continuously creating positive memories and beliefs to influence their predictions. And good predictions count for a lot: simply expecting an event to happen makes it much more likely (see this post about self-fulfilling prophecies to find out why), i.e. an optimistic belief will usually lead to a measurably better outcome than a pessimistic belief. Since optimists make more positive predictions they are likely to be more successful, which means they can store even more positive memories, better beliefs, and so on. The best way to become more positive is to slowly build up more positive memories and beliefs by evaluating events as they happen from a better perspective.
Explanatory styles: Optimists vs pessimist vs realists
We all tend to evaluate events according to three dimensions:
Internal/External - Whether we think the event was in our control
Stable/Unstable - Whether we think similar events in the future will turn out like this
Specific/Global - Whether we generalise it to other kinds of events
Optimists and pessimists tend to use opposing combinations of these dimensions to explain events:
A pessimist who just failed an exam might think: ”I am stupid (internal), I’m going to fail all of my exams (stable), I will never find a career (global)”. Instead, a complete optimist is more likely to think: ”I did the best I could (external), I’m sure I’ll do better in my next exams (unstable), this was just a blip (specific)”. Of course all other combinations are possible, but these are the best and worst case explanatory styles to explain a negative event. If you evaluate an event as internal/stable/global it will mean a lot more to you and your entire life than if you think it was due to an external/ unstable and specific cause, i.e. the impact of the event is intensified, rather than brushed away. Optimists tend to apply the first combination to positive events and the second one to negative events, i.e they don’t let negative events affect them too much and emphasise the meaning of positive events. Serious pessimists do the opposite. When, instead of failing, they ace an exam, they are still likely to use the worst case explanatory style: “The questions were too easy (external), I just got lucky this time (unstable/specific). The best case evaluation that gives you the most confidence and influences your predictions in the most positive way would be: “I got this grade because I studied hard and am good at this (internal), my next exams will turn out just as well (stable), I feel confident about my abilities and I know that I will be successful in the future (global).”
So, what is the most realistic explanatory style? Two of the dimensions have a clear objective alternative: unstable (rather than stable) and specific (rather than global). If you explain events in unstable and specific terms, you concentrate your evaluation on this event only and don’t generalise. This means that for negative events, the optimistic explanatory style is the more objective\realistic one. For positive events, pessimists would strictly speaking be more objective, but this is where the self-fulfilling prophecy comes in: if you generalise positive experiences (i.e. see them as more meaningful and exemplary), they will influence your beliefs more and improve your future predictions, meaning that eventually your generalisations will become reality.
How to be a happy realist
Make sure you are a true realist and not a closet pessimist, i.e. always try to avoid generalisations for negative events and aim to use the unstable/specific dimensions. Positive beliefs are derived not from the total number of good experiences but from a low ratio of bad vs good experiences, so being more realistic (and positive) when evaluating negative events helps a lot already. As for the third dimension (internal vs external), it is never 100% obvious how much of something was due to you or external influences. In most cases it is a mixture, so at least try to balance your judgments.
Are you a realist, a pessimist or an optimist? What is your predominant explanatory style? Are you more optimistic in some situations than in others? If you consider yourself a realist, do you think you are truly objective?