Why I’m An Optimist (And Not a Realist)

Glass of water which is half-full stands on a wooden table which stands on the sand beach by the sea
Is the glass half full or half empty? I’ll let you answer this one.

Last week, I struck up a conversation with a woman while we waited in the checkout line in the grocery store. And as usual on the weekend, I was rocking one of my smiley face shirts.

After chatting for a minute or so, she looked down at my shirt and then asked me flatly, “wow, you do like to smile a lot, don’t you?”

Admittedly, I was a little taken aback by the question, but I replied by saying, “Yeah, I do. I’m a happy guy and I view the world optimistically–it’s just who I am.”

She looked at me suspiciously and then condescendingly replied, “Hmm…okay. No offense, but optimism and smiling all the time isn’t a healthy mindset. It’s far healthier for your sanity to be a realist.” Then she paid for her groceries and shuffled out of the store.

Sadly, I’ve had a variation of this conversation hundreds of times since I’ve started this work years ago. Sometimes it frustrates me, sometimes it amuses me, but it always confuses me.

It’s time to set the record straight.

The Truth About Optimists

Before I dive headfirst into why realists confuse me, let’s discuss some common misconceptions about optimists first:

  • Optimists have no clue how the real world works.
  • Optimists are totally fake.
  • Optimists are soft and weak-minded.
  • Optimists love to stick their heads in the sand and ignore reality.
  • Optimists constantly think “happy thoughts” while doing nothing.

I don’t know how to say this any clearer:

If you believe any of those things, then you have no clue about what optimism is really about.

You probably already know this about me, but I’ve been a proud optimist for most of my adult life. Even as I’m typing this, I feel like my optimism has been completely misunderstood–not only by strangers, but by some of the closest people in my life too. So, let me clear some things up.

Contrary to popular belief, optimists are fully aware of the bad things that can happen in our lives.

Optimists get flat tires. Optimists get fired from their jobs. Optimists get cheated on by their significant others. Optimists get cancer.

The difference is all in how the optimist chooses to deal with those things. 

Instead of taking the easy route by complaining non-stop and wallowing in negativity with no intention of pulling yourself out of it, optimists do the complete opposite.

Optimists acknowledge the reality of the situation, then they do something that is far from easy.

They make the choice to look for the nuggets of positivity in the situation, and most importantly, they always take action towards a better outcome, regardless of the situation.

When faced with life challenges, that is when the optimist shines.

Instead of saying, “this sucks, I’m totally screwed,” the optimist will say, “this sucks right now, but I will find a way to make this better.”

The difference might seem subtle to some people, but in actuality, the difference is enormous.

One option requires a great deal of mental toughness and resiliency, while the other option requires neither.

That’s why I have always admired optimists, and it’s why I have chosen to live the rest of my days on this earth as one of them.

The Realist

I have only met a handful of self-proclaimed pessimists in my life. I mean seriously, do you know anyone who proudly walks around town and says that he/she is a card-carrying pessimist?

While I might not know of many admitted pessimists, I can safely say that I am very familiar with the other “-ist” at the party.

The Realist.

I’ll admit, I’ve never understood the realist at all. I cannot even count the amount of times that I’ve heard, “I’m not an optimist, I’m a realist.” 

Seriously (and I’m not kidding when I say this), what in the hell does that even mean?

The realist will say, “in the real world, bad things happen and things don’t always work out.”

As an optimist, my reply is: “Well, yeah…obviously. Of course bad stuff happens and things don’t always work out. Who has ever said otherwise?”

Like I said earlier, optimists are fully aware of what’s going on in the world around us. It’s just that it doesn’t stop us from making the choice to consistently expect good stuff to happen and to believe that things will work out.

The realist would likely tell me: “Well, that’s not realistic.”

Okay.

Let’s take a moment to define optimism:

A tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.” -Courtesy of Dictionary.com

What’s so unrealistic (or unhealthy) about that?

As an optimist, I can tell you that without exception, I always believe that things are going to work out for me. Why, you might ask?

Because believing in the alternative makes absolutely no sense.

No matter what it is that you want out of life, no matter what it is that you’re hoping for, no matter what it is that you’re dreaming of, no matter what is that you wish to become–I can say this complete confidence:

You have no idea if it will happen or not. 

There is no one reading these words who can predict the future. And because of that, we have a very real choice that we need to make about our expectations.

The Critical Choice

So, here’s the choice that we all have (and let’s assume that we’re willing to take the necessary action to make it happen):

We can either expect things to work out for us, or we can expect things not to work out for us.

Since none of us know what will happen, wouldn’t it make sense to always focus our expectation on what we want to happen in our lives instead of on what we don’t want?

Yes, many times I have expected the best outcome in situations involving my friends, my family, my job, and my significant other and ended up getting disappointed when those things didn’t happen.

But also, many times when I have expected the best outcome in situations involving my friends, my family, my job, and my significant other, I ended up getting a result that far exceeded my expectations.

Either way, it really doesn’t matter if we believe that the world is conspiring against us, or if we believe that the world is conspiring in our favor.

If we try hard enough, we will always find evidence to support our beliefs.

And here’s the most important point of all–regardless of what we believe, it doesn’t make it any more or less realistic.

Why I Choose Optimism, Always

Unfortunately, no matter what I write in this blog post, there will always be the people who view people like me as bubble-headed morons who spend all day dreaming about unicorns while spamming their friends’ inboxes with kitten photos.

Optimists are so much more than some people might think. Optimists are resilient, mentally tough, and some of the most emotionally intelligent people I know.

I choose to live as an optimist because it makes me feel more connected to the world around me.

I choose to live as an optimist because it makes me more creative and able to deal with life’s challenges.

Simply put, I choose to live as an optimist because it makes life a much more enjoyable ride.

Is living this way unrealistic?

I know my answer to that question. What’s yours?

Your Turn

What are your thoughts on the difference between optimists and realists? Jump into the conversation below and make your voice heard!

31 thoughts on “Why I’m An Optimist (And Not a Realist)”

  1. Oh you know I love every word you wrote this week, Shola!!!!

    I have the same conversation with people about my attitude. I even get called “The Happiness Bully!” Seriously, people????

    I am not naive nor do I believe staying positive means my life will be easy. I think realists are just afraid to take a chance.

    It’s easier (and safer) to say that bad things happen then to believe that while bad things happen good things happen too!

    It is embarrassing to say something will work out and then have it fail…. so they save face by being ‘real.’

    I’m gonna stick with my optimistic way of facing life. I will believe all the good things can and will happen. And when the bad stuff happens, I will look for the good.

    It is just a more joy-filled way of living!

    Happy Monday, Shola!!! And I LOVE the picture in your email!!! <3

    Reply
    • Kathy, I can’t believe that you were called a “Happiness Bully!” I’m with Donna–there has to be a way to turn that phrase into a positive somehow… 🙂

      I honestly don’t understand the “realists” but I think that you nailed it when you said that they are afraid to take a chance. Just like you, I’m going to stick with my optimistic ways!

      Also, thanks so much for the kind words about the picture!

      Reply
  2. AMEN!!! I have been told so many times in my life that I’m a Pollyanna – and more often than not, it’s not given as a compliment but more as a “why do you have to always put the positive spin on everything? I can be upset it I want to”. And yes, people can of course be upset when they want to be. I just make a (tough) conscious choice not to succumb and get totally sucked into the negative – and it makes the biggest impact on my overall happiness. You captured so perfectly in this post why it is that I love living life as a Pollyanna – I’m proud to be one and grateful to you for digging deep into this for today’s awesome post!!!

    Reply
    • Thanks Whit! That is exactly what drew me to you when we met for the first time. There is something so great about optimistic energy, and I feel sad for anyone who thinks that it’s a worthwhile exercise to kick dirt on optimists. It’s all good though–it won’t stop us from shining! 🙂

      Reply
  3. Right on!!! Its a choice to look for the positive and to be and think positive in every situation. Its being aware and catching how your mind responds to the negative.

    Reply
  4. I love this post!! Shola, I have been attacked constantly by “realist” people. My ex best friend one day told me “You are always happy, cheerful and loud… you annoy me!” (Now you see why she is an ex friend :). I have been called an airhead, bubblehead, day dreamer, and a couple of expelatives. I think they were just projecting their misery. I noticed most of the people who criticize positive people are just full of envy. Life is already a hard road, so why make it harder by being a so called “realist”? We all have problems, but we decide how to face them, I have met people with cancer or terminally ill and they happen to be the most positive people on earth! how’s that?

    I’ll continue being my annoying optimist self, I am aware of my many problems but everyday I work hard to solve them with a smile on my face and faith in my heart 🙂 is not easy, but is also not impossible. Doing this helps me become a better version of myself, which is my goal!

    Thank you so much for such a great and inspiring post Shola! wish more “realist” people could read this and understand the true meaning of being an optimist! cheers!!

    Reply
    • Sofia, I can completely relate! Your ex-friend is a perfect example of why I wrote this blog post in the first place. You said it flawlessly when you said that people who call optimists names are usually projecting their misery. I absolutely LOVE how you said by attempting to solve them with a smile on your face helps you to become a better version of yourself. Very well said, and I couldn’t agree more!

      Reply
  5. Shola, congrats on doing a real book-signing, an awesome milestone! I can’t wait to tell people I read your blog waaaay before you were famous. This post on so-called “realists” is really touching a nerve with me. It’s a habit I slipped into as a troubled young person, and I admit it was just being a pessimist, but being in denial about it. Calling oneself a “realist” sounds more intellectual. Sadly, having been there, I can tell everyone it is actually a pathetic state of mind, of someone who has given up all hope. It is the stoic face of one who has decided all life sucks and is pointless, and is convinced the future holds only pain, disappointment, heartbreak & ruin. And like Grocery Store Grumpy, realists also have a hard time understanding how others can be so damn smiley, when “can’t they see how much I’m suffering?”. There is an element of self-pity behind their air of superiority. Once again Shola, you have reminded me to be grateful for how far I’ve come, to remember negativities are my auto-default setting, and I must practice positivity daily, to not slip back into that lifestyle. Thank you for this terrific post.

    Reply
    • Sorry to take too much space, but just remembered this! A former coworker & I were debating optimism/pessimism, and I had suggested that happiness might be just as simple as deciding to see the proverbial glass as half full, not half empty. He replied, “Donna, it’t not that simple. I am not a pessimist, I am a realist. I see the glass as TOTALLY EMPTY and I am lost in the middle of the Sahara Desert”. Need I say, this man, who was really a dear & lovely person, died at age 69 of of a massive heart attack, due to chronic stress & hypertension

      Reply
      • Donna, I have a quite few of those stories too. It is so sad, and preventable too.

        By the way, I forgot to mention in my previous comment that you are too sweet for thinking that this book is going to make me famous! I just hope that it helps as many people as possible to work positively. The movement begins on September 6th!

        Reply
    • Donna, you always (and I mean, ALWAYS) add a key point to the conversation that I didn’t think of before. You are so right that “realism” does sound more intellectual than “optimism”, and that’s why optimism is dismissed as a brain-dead way to go through life…even though nothing could be further from the truth. It’s true though–if the pessimists and realists are suffering, then our constant smiles and “glass half full” talk can be grating on them. That’s why I need to stay focused on being an empathetic optimist, and not to let myself devolve into thinking that my mindset is “better” than theirs. It’s not better, but it definitely works for me 🙂

      Reply
  6. I frequently share your blog with my (much smarter than me) daughters. I thought this response from Kimberly was insightful.

    *************
    Interesting…

    I agree in some points. Research shows having a positive disposition is generally better for your health and wellbeing.

    BUT he ignores the fact that in only focusing on the positives, you might fail to prepare for the negatives. It is important to think things through, including possible “bad” outcomes, and not just assume all will work out. This is especially true for big decisions or in our line of work where you have to criticize in order to make things better.

    Also being a realist does not equate to being a pessimist (IMO). I can definitely agree that pessimism is pretty much always going to be a bad thing and that generally optimism is good, especially for your personal health and wellbeing.

    Super interesting! Thank you for sharing Dad! 🙂

    ***************
    Kim does research on people and groups (industrial psyc0logy), knowing that you may see a bit of bias in (e.g. “where you have to criticize in order to make things better”).

    My read is the key point, that I totally agree with is optimism is about “how you deal with issues” vs. “how you define them”. Also love the follow up with Donna and moniker as an “empathetic optimist”!

    Love the blog. Always gets me thinking. Kevin

    Reply
  7. Hello Shola. I’ve stumbled upon this website while looking for a cure for my Annoyance.
    I would love to hear your opinions about the ‘optimists’ who hurt/disappoint others by knowing the outcomes of their actions more or less and still be a Happy optimists, and act as if those actions were not significant. Cheers

    Reply
  8. Very thoughtful, and optimistic.

    As a “self-proclaimed realist.”

    A realist chooses how to react according to the situation. If you’ve conditioned yourself to be optimistic, that’s awesome!

    However, anything of one things is too much. There has to be a balance between things. I think the main issue people have with optimists is; despite their endearing attitude, they fail to see that it’s okay to not be optimistic too. You HAVE to be optimistic. Very much like this article, you made it your choice to be optimistic.

    As much as I would rather have you around than a pessamist, I would rather have someone that understands my mind set at that point. Whether it be positive, or negative.

    “The Glass is half full” – Optimist
    “The Glass is half empty” – Pessamist
    “I’m thirsty, oh, a glass of water!” – Realist

    Reply
  9. I am definitely an idealist since I live in a world of my own and don’t care or follow what happens in the real world particularly current affairs and popular culture.

    However I am trying to become more of a realist by trying to except reality for what it is and deal with it accordingly in my life.

    On the other hand I think an optimist lives with hope in expectation of good things to come while a realist just excepts the reality produced through our socially interactive worlds for what it is and deals with it accordingly.

    Reply
  10. I’m an optimist at my core, but my immediate reaction to any setback in life has always been inflamed negativity and it has to happen. I can’t effectively access my natural optimism and resilience unless I process my intense rage, anguish, and sense of despair FIRST. Trying to skip that step never worked for me.

    Reply
  11. I am an optimist. I see beauty in happiness. However, I also see beauty in sadness. Sometimes I like to be sad. Sometimes I want to be in misery. However, I can have optimism even when I am in sadness and misery. Sometimes when I talk about how awful things are going for me I am being optimistic at the exact same time. I am optimistic that my emotions of sadness are beautiful and that they are healing me. I am optimistic that my sadness will eventually leave me and happiness will find me again. I am optimistic that my sadness will cause me to enjoy my happiness more.

    My sad emotions and my happy emotions work together. I see my sad emotions as friends with my happy emotions. I want to feel sadness and happiness. I don’t want to be happy all the time. I don’t want to be sad all the time. I cherish my sad emotions and I cherish my happy emotions. Sometimes I talk about how sad I am and that is a good thing. I find healing in letting myself be sad at times.

    The darkness makes me appreciate the light more. My sadness helps me enjoy my happiness more. Also, darkness is beautiful. Sadness is beautiful. I don’t run from sadness. I don’t push my sad emotions away. I have a right to be sad. I have a right to be happy. I have a right to be me. When I am sad I know that my misery will only cause me to enjoy my happiness more when sadness finally leaves me.

    Reply
  12. While I agree with always handling situations with positivity, how would you suggest going about that in a way that wouldn’t lead you to missing red flags in your relationships or overlooking critical issues in your personal life?

    Reply
  13. I agree with everything you write. In all your posts, not just this one. I came across your site yesterday and I’ve been reading non stop and already started using many of your tips 🙂
    However, here’s another aspect, from my experience, and I’d love to know what you think. It has happened to me in the past (granted, I was younger). When my insecurities and fears made me only imagine the worst outcome in a situation, and I was living in misery expecting the worst, and then reality eventually contradicted it all. And the best outcome happened, and I was ecstatic and filled with joy and pride. Maybe the misery of expecting the worst is also motivating for us to do our best, without expecting nothing? We are prepared to be disappointed, so we value any good outcome so much more because we didn’t see it coming, or believed in ourselves.
    Thoughts on this? Thank you 🙂

    Reply
  14. I do understand your concept of optimism and will not criticize any who chose to be pure optimists. As an optimistic realist I understand there is good and the possibility of not so pleasant things happening and plan accordingly. For example, an optimistic realist may believe social security will take care of them when they retire, but they realize that other circumstances may require a greater income, like an illness, loss of spouse, changes in laws and taxation. So this person makes sure to have a 401(k), doesn’t retire early, and is prudent about spending. I smile plenty…. good things do happen in my life every day. I am happily married for 45 years, have a very loving daughter, and a home and retirement. Life is good and bad….and I am planning for both. 😍

    Reply
  15. My spouse is a “self proclaimed realist” and I the optimist. One would think we’re the perfect match, however that is not true at all. I often feel as if he is trying to bully me into seeing everything his way. I find it offensive and arrogant. On a good note, I still choose to see the best, and always believe things will find a way to working out.

    Reply
  16. Brilliant! I so resonate with this. I am told from time to time i’m too “positive “ and that it’s time to be realistic?!?? What does that even mean? My view on the world and life in general is very real and balanced which is why I know there’s always light! Thank you 🙏

    Reply

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Hi! I am Shola

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Over a decade ago, I was drowning in the despondency of yet another workday. My success as the top regional performer had been numbed by a culture of incessant workplace bullying. And, I’d recently made the situation worse by filing a formal complaint. In short, I was collateral damage in a company without the process or intention to address my experience.

Exhausted from the drama, with an unrecognizable version of myself at the wheel, I intentionally swerved off the interstate in an attempt to take my own life. But in that half-second, my reflexes responded, and I yanked the wheel away from disaster. As I clipped the guardrail on I 405, something changed...

I uncovered a power within myself

...a burning desire to reverse a trend that happens daily to sixty-five million people in this country alone. This catalyst has since become Go Together™ Movement - a transformational roadmap of mindset, behaviors, and tools that transform workplace cultures and drive results.

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