I ask myself three questions when I need to make a realistic appraisal
Blocking out uncertainty with unconsidered optimism will not help you cope with anxieties
Better an optimist than a pessimist be – but realism makes you happier. That’s worth remembering in both a global and a personal sense at the moment.
Down below, I’ll explain a trick I use to move myself from my natural pessimism and towards realism, but first it’s worth looking at some interesting, long-term British research.
The British Household Panel Survey measures many aspects of the lives of families in Britain. Researchers from the London School of Economics and the University of Bath used the answers from 1991 to 2009 to look at optimism, pessimism and realism and which of them makes you happiest.
They focused on the most optimistic and the most pessimistic people when it came to finances. The survey asks respondents if they think they will be better off, worse off or the same financially in a year’s time.
They measured the responses against people’s actual financial situation at the time, to assess whether they were wildly optimistic or unrealistically pessimistic.
The middle group was made up of the realists who came up with fairly sober, reality-based assessments.
If you’re thinking realists don’t have much fun, you’d be wrong. For psychological wellbeing they beat both the optimists and the pessimists suggests the study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
The researchers found that excessively pessimistic people experienced far more distress, psychologically, than the realists – about 37 per cent more. Not surprising, you may say, but it gives the lie to the assertion that if you expect the worst, you won’t be disappointed. If you cultivate an unrealistic expectation of the worst, you’ll feel the worst.
Those who were wildly optimistic did better – their level of distress was 12 per greater than that of the realists.
Realists experienced greater wellbeing than either category.
People made stupid deals during the Celtic Tiger years on the basis of wild optimism for which they are still paying
Remember this was about the most wildly optimistic and the most deeply pessimistic. In my opinion, wild optimism may do more harm than pessimism: people made stupid deals during the Celtic Tiger years on the basis of wild optimism for which they are still paying; many of the pronouncements of Brexiteers reflect a wild optimism disconnected from reality; and I think it’s fair to say that many coronavirus deaths arose from wild optimism on the part of leaders and individuals.
A reasonably optimistic approach or trait is beneficial in health, work and relationships. It’s the exaggerated variety you need to look out for.
But how do you arrive at a realistic appraisal, which seems so good for wellbeing? I ask myself three questions that I try to answer quickly.
What looms largest?
The first is what do I fear will happen? I put that first only because my own tendency is towards pessimism, so it’s usually what looms largest. I really let it rip – financial ruin is imminent and I will be sent to wander in the desert and survive on grubs.
It’s the same with the wildly optimistic version – I can have fun: the forthcoming (true) US edition of one of my books will shoot to the top of the New York Times’ bestseller list, a stream of dollars will flow across the Atlantic and I will be rich enough to divide my time between Dublin, Manhattan and Venice.
The realistic version is that my income will fall in a stressed economy but not so far that I won’t be okay.
The realistic version is usually simpler and, when given thought, fairly obvious.
This matters because, for all of us, the air is thick with uncertainty. That creates a space in which our worst fears move in like a tide on to a deserted beach. Or, as a defence mechanism, we may try to block it all out with unconsidered, exaggerated optimism – think of people partying on the streets when the lockdown eased.
An exercise in realistic appraisal – what do I fear? what do I hope for? what’s most likely to happen? – might sometimes feel uncomfortable but is more likely to lead towards greater wellbeing.
I acknowledge that some people feel sickening anxiety at the moment – but realistic appraisal will help more than nightmares.
Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (firstname.lastname@example.org)