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Are You a Realistic, Cruel, or Tragic Optimist?

Knowing the difference could help you cope with adversity.

Key points

  • An optimistic outlook is associated with numerous mental and physical health benefits.
  • It can be helpful to categorize optimism into three types—realistic, cruel, and tragic.
  • Realistic and tragic optimism emphasize focusing on what you can and can't control, then taking action.
Source: Khokar5090 / Shutterstock
Source: Khokar5090 / Shutterstock

Can optimism ever be cruel?

I came upon the phrase “cruel optimism” recently and couldn’t forget it. “Cruel optimism” seems like such a contradiction. After all, “optimism” is a word that shines with good cheer, possibility, and hope for the future. What could possibly be cruel about that?

Well, quite a bit, it turns out. In this post, I’ll take a look at three kinds of optimism: realistic optimism, cruel optimism, and tragic optimism. The goal is to help you watch out for “cruel optimism” and, alternatively, to develop an authentic optimistic mindset that will help you stay hopeful and confident amidst life’s challenges.

The Optimism Advantage

If you are wondering why you might want to be more optimistic, know that optimism correlates with numerous physical and mental health benefits. Physical benefits include a longer life, better memory; better mobility and physical functioning; and lower stress and blood pressure. Mental health benefits include better coping strategies, seeing the positive in stressful situations, healthier lifestyles, greater flexibility, and better problem-solving, as well as a higher quality of life in general.

So, if you are interested in life satisfaction, choose optimism.

But what is optimism, anyway? A good working definition from this study is “a general expectation that good things will happen, or believing that the future will be favorable because we can control important outcomes.” Some people with a sunny-side-up disposition tend to exemplify the first part of that definition. Maybe they’ve had good things happen in the past and expect the same in the future. Or maybe they are genetically predisposed in that direction.

Realistic Optimism

“Realistic optimists” focus on the second part of that definition: the belief that they can influence or manage the outcomes of a particular situation. As I wrote here, “optimism is not necessarily seeing the glass as half full; rather, it is the confidence that you can take the glass to the sink and fill it yourself.”

A good example of a “realist optimist” is writer Paul Long. In this article, Long describes his own optimism as a process of analyzing the risks and challenges in a situation to discover the best possible way forward. He asserts, “Realistic optimism enables me to avoid or overcome those challenges and have the confidence to do so. It also fuels my determination to achieve a positive outcome.”

Summing it up, realistic optimism helps you focus on what you can and can’t control, then to proceed as best you can in accordance with your goals and values.

Cruel Optimism

"Cruel optimism" is the first cousin of "toxic positivity." Both take a genuinely upsetting, hurtful, or unjust situation and "put an endlessly sunny spin on it, regardless of reality," as Kate Silver writes.

In his book, Stolen Focus, journalist Johann Hari describes cruel optimism as “when you take a really big problem with deep causes in our culture…and you offer people, in upbeat language, a simplistic individual solution. It sounds optimistic, because you are telling them the problem can be solved, and soon—but it is, in fact, cruel, because the solution you are offering is so limited, and so blind to the deeper causes, that for most people, it will fail.”

Optimism can become cruel when it leads to self-blame, other-blame, or wishful thinking. Self-blame can occur when people blame themselves for not succeeding in situations that are beyond their control. Other-blame occurs when people blame individuals of certain races, groups, or religions for struggling in life when, in fact, the deck is stacked against them. Wishful thinking promotes the idea that things will work out for the best in “the best of all possible worlds.” Such a belief might be an obstacle to taking constructive action, as this research points out.

Is there an upside to cruel optimism? Oddly, yes, but only if you are aware of it. Knowing about cruel optimism could help you determine your odds of success in a difficult situation, thereby avoiding self-blame or giving yourself compassion if things don’t work out.

Tragic Optimism

Finally, there is “tragic optimism,” a term first used by Viktor Frankl in his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Author/coach Brad Stulberg draws from Frankl in offering the following definition in his fascinating book, Master of Change: “Tragic optimism is the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite its inescapable pain, loss, and suffering.” You might say tragic optimism takes realistic optimism a step deeper.

Stulberg offers these specific suggestions to cope with life’s existential crises:

  1. Accept that some suffering is inevitable. Expecting life to be hard can paradoxically make it easier by helping you set realistic expectations.
  2. Develop a “both/and” attitude toward life. As Stulberg writes, “tragic optimism teaches us that life can be sad and meaningful.” We can feel grief and gratitude, pain and joy.
  3. Realize what you can change and what you can’t, then take action to change what you can.

The Brighter Side

Though life is difficult, there is still a place for optimism. Training your brain to be more optimistic, practicing happiness exercises, and developing the attitude of gratitude may make a small, but significant difference in your daily attitude and actions. Even after experiencing a significant loss, we can still savor life's good moments. As psychologist Mary Pipher wrote, “As we walk out of a friend’s funeral, we can smell wood smoke in the air and taste snowflakes on our tongues.”

© Meg Selig, 2024. All rights reserved. For permissions, click here.


Stulberg, B. (2023). Master of Change: How to Excel When Everything Is Changing—Including You. NY: HarperOne.

Hari, J. (2022). Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again. NY: Crown, p. 150 ff.

Long, Paul. 25 Huge Reasons to be (Realistically) Optimistic to Optimize Your Life (

Pipher, M. (2019). "The Joy of Being a Woman in Her 70s." New York Times, 1.12.2019

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