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Is Positive Thinking a Mistake?

What's with the dissing of optimism?

Key points

  • Two studies published last year cast a bit of shade on the power of positive thinking.
  • One of the more successful techniques is developing a positive mantra.
  • Anger can be useful when we are being wronged, and anxiety can alert us to challenges.
Source: Prostock-studio / Canva
Source: Prostock-studio / Canva

Two studies published last year cast a bit of shade on the power of positive thinking and of avoiding negative emotions. This thinking came as a bit of a surprise to me, given that the business and consulting world is one that feeds on optimism and positive self-talk. “You can do it!” “I can get that done in time!” “I can survive this work marathon!” Personally, I'm not only an optimist, but I also deeply believe that only optimism has kept me going at various dark periods in my work life.

So what gives? What's with the dissing of optimism? In the short run, we (in the business world) champion the power of setting stretch goals and going for them. I coach people all the time to both live with the discomfort of public speaking and practice various techniques to overcome or at least ameliorate the nerves. One of the more successful techniques is developing a positive mantra that addresses the specifics of the discomfort.

Many businesses themselves are started in a welter of optimism, and the entrepreneurial story bank teems with heroes who have hung in there and continued to strive despite the evidence to the contrary. Where would Steve Jobs be without deep wells of optimism and determination to keep him going?

A Touch of Pessimism

So what’s wrong with optimism, then? The first study found that a touch of pessimism is a sign of a higher IQ, and greater realism when it comes to finances and the odds of success in starting a new business. As Dr. Chris Dawson, the lead author on the study, notes, “low cognitive ability leads to more self-flattering biases—people essentially deluding themselves.” And as if that weren’t enough of a slap in the face to us optimists, Dawson continues aiming directly at those of us starting small businesses: “The chances of starting a successful business are tiny, but optimists always think they have a shot and will start businesses destined to fail.”

Ouch. As someone who started a small business 27 years ago, a business that is still thriving, I’ll admit that optimism got me started, anxiety often kept me going, and worry never really goes away.

So with all our optimism, business people, maybe we should add a sprinkling of realism or even pessimism to keep us on the right road.

Response to Negative Emotions

The other study cuts even closer to home for those of us who like to keep it positive. Apparently, those pesky negative emotions will keep coming because we are human and can’t help responding to the things that irritate, annoy, alarm, vex, displease, antagonize, exasperate, irk, gall, or enrage us.

What the study focused on was our response to those negative emotions. If we judge our negative emotional responses as wrong or inappropriate, then we are more likely to have anxiety and depression. If, on the other hand, we accept negative emotions as a normal part of life, then we are more likely to experience the beneficial sides of those feelings. Anger can be useful when we are being wronged, anxiety can alert us to challenges in the environment we need to address, and fear can let us know that we need to watch out for that saber-tooth tiger lurking in the bushes over there.

Taken together, these studies help us recognize that while optimism can be essential to get things started, a healthy dose of realism may be just the ticket to keep us from overdoing those annual forecasts. And accepting the frustrations that naturally come with the ebbs and flows of business life, specifically in the form of our own negative emotions, will help us navigate work life more smoothly. Emotions are signs, as my therapists over the years have told me, clues that something is wrong—or right—in the moment, and it’s good to pay attention to them—without judgment.


Willroth EC, Young G, Tamir M, Mauss IB. Judging emotions as good or bad: Individual differences and associations with psychological health. Emotion. 2023 Oct;23(7):1876-1890. doi: 10.1037/emo0001220. Epub 2023 Mar 13. PMID: 36913276; PMCID: PMC10497731.

Dawson C. Looking on the (B)right Side of Life: Cognitive Ability and Miscalibrated Financial Expectations. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2023.

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