Last week, there was a household debate over a bold article in The Atlantic stating that “Optimism Is the Enemy of Action,” that too much positive thinking lulls a person into a sense of wellness that keeps them from changing their circumstances.
Dr. Gabriele Oettigen, who authored the book Rethinking Positive Thinking, points out that, in many positive-thinking models today, optimism and fantasy are indistinguishable—”if you can dream it, you can do it.”
While this message is encouraging, Dr. Oettigen points out that just dreaming it isn’t enough; you have to understand your own limitations and other obstacles, using a process called mental contrasting. Or, you could call it a healthy dose of reality.
As a member of super-positive Smile TV and Contagious Optimism LIVE, I had to add my two cents. The article’s title may be misleading, because it equates optimism with fantasy.
Optimism (n): a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.
Fantasy (n): imagination, especially when extravagant and unrestrained.
Optimism, particularly an optimistic attitude, gives a person the necessary drive to overcome obstacles, while a fantasy does not allow for such obstacles to exist.
For example, Sourena Vasseghi, one of our Contagious Optimism LIVE speakers, has severe cerebral palsy; he is bound to a wheelchair, has minimal motor control, and has a very hard time speaking (let alone being understood). When he set out to be a motivational speaker/author, he understood his inhibitions all too well, but he still believed he could accomplish all the things he wanted to do. After he had done the mental contrasting, his optimistic attitude drove him to action.
Sourena originally couldn’t type on a regular keyboard, so he bought a specially designed keyboard with larger keys and indentations to grip. He has now typed two books himself: Big Dreams Take Small Sacrifices and Love Your Life, and It Will Love You Back.” He wasn’t able to clearly convey his message to live audiences, so he hired a stage partner to facilitate. He has since given TEDx talks, spoken corporate and university events, and been featured on national network news programs.
While realism (and pessimism) would have told Sourena “wheelchair,” optimism gave him “wheelchair, and…”
So who won the debate? Both sides are right. One can’t dwell on fantasy and hope the desired result will materialize by itself. If you want something, you’ve got to go out and get it. Prioritize. Take stock. Understand your obstacles, then put forth the necessary work to conquer them. Optimism says “I can,” and therefore, it is the greatest driver of action out there. What can you do today?