Realists are happier than (unrealistic) optimists

optimists vs pessimists

Are optimists happier? Past research has found that believing in a bright future does indeed correlate with many positive outcomes. The basic idea is that optimism makes people better able to handle stressful situations.

But on the other hand, too much optimism can have negative effects. Like, for example, overestimating the likelihood of positive events, and underestimating the likelihood of negative ones.

In fact, “unrealistic optimism” is extremely common, with many studies suggesting that about 80% of people have a so-called “optimism bias.” But when things don’t work out as planned, that optimism can sour into disappointment.

Optimists, pessimists, and realists

Now a new study by a pair of researchers in the United Kingdom has taken a look at the long-term consequences. Who has the highest sense of well-being in the long run: unrealistic optimists, unrealistic pessimists, or realists?

They used a sample of 1,601 people who took part in the British Household Panel Survey from 1991 to 2009. This survey consists of a questionnaire covering topics such as a household’s economic activity, health, and finances.

The survey asks, for example, whether respondents expect their financial situation a year from now to be better, worse, or about the same. Likewise, it asks about their current financial situation, compared to one year ago.

The respondents also answered questions about their general sense of well-being and life satisfaction, via survey tools such as the General Health Questionnaire.

Realists had the highest sense of well-being

The researchers found that people who misjudge the future, either too optimistically or too pessimistically, have a lower sense of well-being than realists. The measurement they used was the subjects’ financial expectations versus their actual financial results, over a period of 18 years.

People with the most pessimistic expectations had a 22% reduction in their long-term well-being. That figure was 14% for the most optimistic people. 

Moreover, the respondents with the most pessimistic expectations experienced a 37% higher level of psychological distress than the realists; for optimists, this figure was 12%.

Why pessimists might experience this distress is perhaps a bit obvious. They tend to have a negative outlook on things, and when things go badly, that only reconfirms their beliefs.

Unrealistic optimists

But why might optimists experience this distress? The authors propose that a sense of disappointment gradually begins to overpower their optimism. This, in turn, leads to a drop in their sense of well-being.

More generally, trying to make plans based on inaccurate beliefs (either too positive or too negative) also leads to worse outcomes than correct expectations. And these suboptimal outcomes have a negative influence on well-being.

Too much optimism can have a price

Interestingly, the study found that the financial optimists are also more likely to smoke. That’s likely because they underestimate the likelihood of bad things happening, for example smoking-related illness, and thus engage in risky activities.

In general, the paper finds that people who hold false beliefs – whether positive or negative ones – have a lower sense of well-being and life satisfaction.

Of course, a bit of optimism can have benefits in terms of resilience. But at a certain point, it seems to become maladaptive. The benefits of extra optimism then have diminishing returns, and increasing costs.

 “Although unrealistic optimism prevails in the population,” the authors conclude, “it is not a recipe for maximizing well-being.”

Study: “Neither an Optimist Nor a Pessimist Be: Mistaken Expectations Lower Well-Being” (link)
Authors: David de Meza and Chris Dawson
Published in: Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin
Publication date: July 6, 2020
DOI: 10.1177/0146167220934577
Photo: by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

For a weekly summary of the latest psychology news, subscribe to our Psych News Weekly newsletter.

Sign up to receive awesome psychology news
in your inbox, every week.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Related posts

People low in openness, neuroticism less likely to obey shelter in place rules

A new study has found that people with certain personality traits are less likely to follow shelter in place rules.
Animal psychologyPersonality

Dog personality changes as dogs age, but in predictable ways

A new study finds that dog personality changes as dogs get older: they tend to become less curious, but grow more attached to their owners.

Study finds that right-wing authoritarians aren’t very funny people

A new study has found that right-wing authoritarians are considerably less funny than people who do not share that disposition.