Research Finds Overly Positive Thinking May Not Have More Positive Outcomes

mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant By Sarah Regan
mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant

Sarah Regan is a writer, registered yoga instructor, and Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Inspired Young Woman Sitting on a Beach

Are you an eternal optimistic? A bit of a pessimist? According to new research, the best may be somewhere in the middle: having more realistic expectations.

In a new longitudinal study by the University of Bath and London School of Economics and Political Science, researchers discovered realists actually felt a greater sense of well-being long term than optimists.

Studying the effects of expectations.

For 18 years, the researchers annually checked in with 1,600 participants in the U.K., digging into which kind of mindset resulted in the most favorable outcomes. To do this, they asked questions about the subjects' overall life satisfaction and mental health. They also tracked the subjects' finances over the course of the study, alongside their expectations of said finances, as a way to measure their expectations and how their expectations were related to their well-being.

Perhaps to the dismay of overly positive thinkers out there—realists came out on top. (And this research estimates that roughly 80% of people are "unrealistic optimists.") And despite what some might say about having low expectations to avoid disappointment, pessimists didn't do well either. Realists were those who neither assumed the best would happen nor assumed the worst: They simply planned based on the actual evidence available to them.

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The benefit of being realistic.

Based on these findings, it would seem that being realistic with your expectations (and actions) will lead to even more positive outcomes than being positive all the time.

The problem arises for optimists when disappointment sinks in after their hopes are not realized and, for pessimists, when they can't recognize things going well. But for realists, their expectations don't set them up for either.

"I think for many people, research that shows you don't have to spend your days striving to think positively might come as a relief," explains study co-author and professor Chris Dawson, Ph.D., in a news release. "We see that being realistic about your future and making sound decisions based on evidence can bring a sense of well-being, without having to immerse yourself in relentless positivity."

That's not to say we should never be positive again but rather realistic in our expectations and actions. The research gives a whole new meaning to toxic positivity, and why it's important to be realistic, particularly when making decisions.

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