Positive thinking accused of causing misery

A-OK: Average well-being is steady over time, despite every generation predicting an increase.

Are we too optimistic? Most people think their lives will be better in five years time, but new data suggests otherwise. Some think our obsession with “positive thinking” is doing us harm.

Before reading on, answer these two questions:

1/ Imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you; the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally stand at this time?

2/ On which step do you think you will stand in the future, say about five years from now?

Over 10 years the very same quiz was put to 1.7 million people across the world. The vast majority thought their lives would be better in five years time, giving a higher number for the second question than the first. If you did the same, there is a good chance you will be disappointed.

At least that is the argument of economist Sir Angus Deaton, whose analysis of this survey has been released this month. He claims that in every region of the world “people consistently but irrationally predict they will be better off five years from now”.

This is particularly true for young people. On average, those aged 15-24 gave their present well-being a score of 5.5, but predicted it to rise to 7.2 in five years. However, 25-34 year-olds gave their present well-being a lower score of 5.3 — implying that youngsters’ hopes of a happier future will not come true.

So what is to blame for such over-optimism? Biology could play a role, Deaton suggesting that optimism is part of a “normal healthy brain”.

But there are also cultural influences. From upbeat pop songs declaring that “things can only get better”, to endless pop psychology books, modern culture has been labelled a “tyranny of the positive attitude”.

And some scientists think this is bad. For example, various studies suggest that pessimists cope better in distressing situations; have healthier relationships; and are more likely to achieve certain goals.

However, the case against optimism is not totally conclusive. Another recent study found that those with a positive outlook require less treatment for chronic heart conditions.

So are we too optimistic?

Glass half full

We must embrace the negative, some argue. Constantly expecting things to improve only ends in disappointment and depression, while a more balanced outlook makes us happy with what we already have. Furthermore, sadness is part of the human condition — suppressing it is to deny what it means to be alive.

But a positive outlook leads to positive change, others respond. Optimism is about imagining a better future for ourselves, and only through such fancy can we work to make it a reality. And fundamentally, looking on bright side makes our experiences richer and the world a more pleasant place to live.

You Decide

  1. Is it better to be an optimist or a pessimist?
  2. Will your life be better in five years time?


  1. Take the quiz at the start of the article and discuss it with your classmates. Do most of you think your lives will have improved in five years time? Why, or why not?
  2. Get into pairs and prepare for a mini debate! Allocate one person as an optimist, and the other a pessimist. Each has two minutes to note down some bullet points as to why their outlook on the world is better. When both are ready, debate the following motion: “Being optimistic is the route to happiness.”

Some People Say...

“Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power.”

William James

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Data for this survey was collected by the Gallup World Poll from 2006 to 2016, and included 1.7 million people across 166 countries. The ratings are self-reported, meaning they convey how each individual sees their own well-being and how they predict it will change in the future. The data does not prove that young people who expect to have better lives in the future will be wrong.
What do we not know?
We do not know precisely why people are disposed to be optimistic, however theories concerning this “optimism bias” suggest it may be related to our genes. Furthermore, it has not been proved that optimism has a positive or negative effect — studies often pointing out correlations between mental outlook and medical conditions without proving direct causation.

Word Watch

Published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The statistics do not prove that this will be the case.
Things can only get better
Most famously the single of the same name by D:Ream.
For example, The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, first published in 1952 and translated into 15 languages.
A 2001 study by Derek Isaacowitz found that elderly people who were pessimists were less likely to suffer from depression following the death of a friend.
A 2016 paper by Karin G. Coifman found that people who acknowledged negative emotions demonstrated “better relationship adjustment and related behaviours”.
A 1986 study by Julie Norem and Nancy Cantor claimed that “defensive pessimists” can achieve goals effectively by imagining all the things that could go wrong and avoiding those pitfalls.
Researchers from Duke and Columbia universities studied 2,400 people suffering from angina — a chronic heart condition. They found the most optimistic patients were 30% less likely to need hospital treatment over a two year period.

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