How to face reality: the case for optimism
Psychiatrists and therapists tend to advise people to “face reality” and accept whatever problems the world presents to them. According to this view, denial reflects repression. And repression can lead to neuroses and a whole lot of other bad things. However, the research about optimism challenges this perspective. In fact an unrealistic approach to life is associated with good health and more happiness.
Twenty-five years ago a friend of mine, Alexander Dekker, then 23 years old, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. His neurosurgeon operated on his brain but concluded that the tumor, which was on the brain stem, was too intertwined with it to allow a safe removal. Given the location of the tumor, radiation was not an option either. “You need to prepare yourself, because it could all be over in two and half months,” the surgeon told Alexander and his parents.
But that was not the reality Alexander was prepared to accept. He left the hospital and started taking care of himself. Twenty-seven years later, Alexander is a healthy man, his tumor has disappeared from the scans since long and he enjoys his life to the fullest. Read his full story here.
Alexander’s story is not unique. Research shows that a persuasive case can be made for not facing reality, and instead engaging in what psychologists call “positive denial.” If you expect things to work out well, even in the face of evidence that they may not, you activate processes that work against the odds. As compelling as the research is for denial in cases like Alexander’s, the research also shows that many people die very close to the date that their doctors have given them. A doctor tells a cancer patient that she may have another six months to live and very often that message turns into fact as the patient accepts and adjusts to “reality”.
But, of course, it isn’t reality. When a doctor guesses how long someone may still live, he is doing just that: guessing. He doesn’t know. Nobody does. The only reality is that the patient has a life-threatening disease and that she is alive.
That’s where optimism comes in. Optimism is not reality distorting, it is reality based. A successful optimistic strategy starts with reality and chooses the best possible scenario. That’s why Pollyanna was wrong and why rose-colored glasses don’t work. It doesn’t make sense—and it may even be harmful—to try to see a different reality in the moment. Alexander had a tumor; he’d needed to do something about it…
The root of the word “optimism” comes from Latin (optimum) and a good definition is “the doctrine that this world is the best of all possible worlds.” Optimism is a fundamental attitude. It’s not an opinion about reality; it’s a starting point for dealing with reality. At every moment, you can decide that you’re in the best situation to handle a given challenge. That is optimism. Optimism is searching for the yes in every situation and finding it. That search, that focus, is the beginning of a new reality.
You can join our online event with Alexander Dekker on November 13. For more information click here.
And for more reasons to choose the optimistic way of life, click here for a FREE download of “The 7 reasons to be an Optimist”