Is it possible to be “too” optimistic? Certainly.
Between the two poles of optimism and pessimism there exists a continuum. On one end are the optimists who border on delusion and refuse to face reality. The quote “Denial is not a river in Egypt” comes to mind.
On the other end of the spectrum lie the morbid pessimists, who gripe about anything and everything. It would be fairly safe to say that neither extreme is constructive.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, pessimism is defined as:
1. an inclination to emphasize adverse events, conditions, and possibilities or to expect the worst possible outcome
2. the doctrine that reality is essentially evil
3. the doctrine that evil overbalances happiness in life.
There are few circumstances in which pessimism, as defined in these ways, would increase one’s well-being.
Perhaps a more “positive” cousin of pessimism is the term “cautious”, defined (again by Merriam-Webster dictionary) as utilizing “prudent forethought to minimize risk”. For instance, thinking twice about walking down a dark alley alone in the dead of night sounds wise.
However, what if you’re suffering from clinical depression? What if even getting out of bed in the morning feels agonizing? Trying for the s0-called “happy” medium of caution, much less optimism, when yourmind and body tell you that all is lost can seem impossible. No question about it.
Clinical depression, which can stem from a variety of complex factors, including psychological or physical trauma, biochemical imbalances, a genetic disposition, or chronic stress, does not often go away without a concerted effort. Often a number of approaches will need to be explored before depression begins to yield.
This being said, positive psychotherapy (PPT) has been shown to alleviate depression, even among people experiencing major depressive disorder.
Researchers at the Positive Psychotherapy Center at the University of Pennsylvania tested PPT techniques in various settings, including informal student, clinical, and Web-based formats. The results demonstrated that internet-based PPT relieved symptoms of depression for over six months when compared with placebo exercises, which were effective for a few days at most.
In fact, people who suffered from severe depression benefited the most from the Web-based exercises, which included the following:
Give one or more of the above activities a shot. In fact, try them out on a regular basis. (The people in the PPT research studies practiced the techniques from six to 12 weeks.)
A tip — it may help to pick a friend with whom you can check in about completing some (or all) of the above exercises. Having someone to be accountable to (and who will root you on) can increase the chances of your sticking with your plans. However, if this feels too intimidating, it’s not necessary.
Also, practice being compassionate and patient with yourself. Change is challenging, even healthy change. We tend to cling to the familiar even if it’s to our own detriment. Developing new behaviors is like building an emotional muscle. For instance, if you’re right-handed you wouldn’t expect to print neatly with your left hand immediately. So, treat yourself with kindness and expect the PPT exercises to feel a little awkward and uncomfortable at times.
The good news is that eventually you can become more emotionally “ambidextrous” – optimistic when appropriate, and “cautious” when called for.
Seligman, M.E.P., Rashid, T., & Parks, A.C. (2006). Positive psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 61(8): 774-788.
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Last reviewed: 16 Oct 2013