Study finds realist thinking prevails for long-term wellbeing

A study on the power of forced positive thinking revealed realists experience the highest long-term happiness

We often think that the route to happiness and joy is through the power of positive thinking, and there’s not denying that having a positive outlook on life can do wonders for our emotional wellbeing. But a study by the University of Bath and London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) revealed that for positive long-term emotional wellbeing, neither optimists or pessimists fare best, it’s actually people who take reality into consideration when it comes to decision making, the realists.

The major UK longitudinal study conducted over 18 years, points towards maintaining accurate self-perception as the route to happiness, in regards to financial stability and employment.  The study to determine whether optimists, pessimists or realists achieve the highest long-term wellbeing, found that those holding the most optimistic expectations towards achieving their goals experienced a significant reduction (13.5%) in long-run wellbeing. Pessimists received an even higher reduction (21.8%).

Researchers said, “For optimists, disappointment may eventually dominate the anticipatory feelings of expecting the best whilst for pessimists the depressing effect of expecting doom may eventually dominate the elation when the worst is avoided.”

When happiness is at stake, overestimating outcomes was associated with significantly lower wellbeing.

As part of the study, researchers performed annual check-ins with the 1,600 participants. They tracked their mindsets in relation to overall satisfaction with life, based on various lifestyle questions. Researchers were analysing people’s expectations of financial stability and career progression compared to the realities of those expectations and found that 80% of the population are classic ‘unrealistic’ optimists, overestimating significant outcomes which lead to disappointment, frustration and low-self esteem.

The results bring into question the forced positive thinking approach many of us feel we have to adopt in order to deliver us success and immediate happiness – the kind of happiness we think can be created by imagining and solely focusing on a positive future.

The research is not to say that we should all adopt a more pessimistic view on the world, but perhaps take careful consideration with non-biased attitudes, when it comes to significant, life-changing decisions throughout our lives.

Dr Chris Dawson, Associate Professor in Business Economics in Bath’s School of Management explains that the new framing of positive thinking may come as a relief to some. He says ,“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. We see that being realistic about your future and making sound decisions based on evidence can bring a sense of wellbeing, without having to immerse yourself in relentless positivity.

“Plans based on inaccurate beliefs make for poor decisions and are bound to deliver worse outcomes than would rational, realistic beliefs, leading to lower wellbeing for both optimists and pessimists. Particularly prone to this are decisions on employment, savings and any choice involving risk and uncertainty.”

For long-term happiness and emotional wellbeing when we have to face significant decisions, realistic thinking is the most beneficial to maintaining a healthy mindset.

How to have a healthy, realistic mindset

A simple way to encourage a healthy, realistic mindset that doesn’t air on the side of pessimism, is by adopting SMART goals. SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time Limited.

The SMART goal setting approach allows you creativity with your goals, but also asks you to question the realistic aspect of them, by giving you real time frames and measurables to determine success. It can be helpful to start small in this process, with short-term goals that allow for celebration of success.

For support in setting, maintaining and achieving healthy, realistic goals in relation to your personal development, career progression and financial status, working with a life coach can support you on your path to success.