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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Dec 9, 2022


Is optimism always better for happiness and well-being? This week we explore which is best for mental well-being - being pessimistic, realistic or optimistic. 



Welcome to episode 166 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we explore which is best for mental well-being - being pessimistic, realistic or optimistic.

The benefits of optimism have been widely promoted over the past few years. However, as we have discussed before, unrealistic optimism can lead to negative outcomes. Pessimism often has a range of even worse outcomes. The classical view in psychology is that mental health requires accurate self-perception. So are we better off just being realistic?

A recent study tackled the question of pessimism, optimism and well-being in a clever way. They tracked the financial expectations and actual outcome of 1,600 people over an 18 year period. 

The researchers identified those with unrealistic optimism - where they consistently overestimated the likelihood of positive financial outcomes - as having a 14% reduction in long-term mental well-being, and 12% increased level of distress. Constantly falling short of expectations is clearly damaging. But those who were unrealistically pessimistic were even worse off, showing a 22% reduction in long-term well-being and 37% higher psychological distress than those with realistic and accurate expectations.

So what can we take away from this research? Here are four ideas to improve our mental well-being:

  1. Learn from the surprise wins and the tough times. It’s striking how these patterns of unrealistic optimism and pessimism were sustained by participants over nearly two decades. Let’s aim for learning and improvement, converting these wins and losses into personal development and growth.

  2. Gather information to confirm or refute your perspective. When things are uncertain our natural tendency can be to avoid information. Instead, we should actively seek out alternative perspectives.

  3. Speak to others and gain their perspectives. Good advice and feedback are priceless. We often underestimate how important it is to learn from others.

  4. Aim for accurate self-perception. The more we can see ourselves and events as they really are, the greater our mental well-being.



de Meza, D., & Dawson, C. (2021). Neither an Optimist Nor a Pessimist Be: Mistaken Expectations Lower Well-Being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin47(4), 540–550.