Optimistic Realism

I RECEIVED an email from Dan Cross a little while ago. He's a department manager for a retail store, a freelance author, and a full-time student at University of Walden, studying Business Administration. He wrote:

Hi Adam! I corresponded with you years ago, after your book came out. I love Do you have plans to expand and update your excellent self-help book?

Also, I wish you'd take on the recent book "Bright-Sided."
Here's an excerpt. It is a devastating critique of positive thinking, at least the variety that is like "The Secret," but I think those reading it may come away a bit...pessimistically.

I believe the so-called Law of Attraction and magical thinking is dangerous, and can lead to serious pitfalls in life decisions. But too often optimism gets caught up in that sort of thing, whether New Age or contemporary religious thought. Crush Pessimism doesn't speak of ridiculous things, and I recall you've always had a respect for science, so I'd love it if you'd blog more about the science of optimism. For example, the effects of positive thinking on one's health. Is it really proven conclusively that positive thinking keeps one healthy, or as it is with most things, is that an oversimplification?

How do we embrace optimism, crush pessimism, but at the same time be "realists?" Is there something like an optimistic realist?

- Dan Cross


This is the way I answered him:

Hi Dan,

An optimistic realist is exactly what I aim for. It's completely possible. Here are some links to answers to your questions. This is about realists: Pessimists Are Not Realists. And here are several articles about positive thinking making you healthier: The Impact of Pessimism and Optimism on Your Health.

I agree with you about The Secret. I have poked fun at the kind of wishful, over-the-top positive thinking in my chapter, Positive Thinking: The Next Generation:

Old-style positive thinking — the kind of pollyanna, rose-colored glasses, everything-happens-for-a-reason positive thinking — ignores an important issue: truth. And that’s why it doesn’t work very well. Thinking positively only works if you believe it, and it’s very difficult for a modern, educated, rational person (you, for instance) to believe something just because it’s a nice thought.

People in the business of criticizing positive thinking sometimes themselves go too far the other way. You can find plenty to criticize with many promoters of positive thinking, but there is also some good evidence that optimism has a powerful impact on your health and your ability to succeed in the world, and that certainly shouldn't be ignored.

I have a second book now. It's really a revision of the first one. I removed seven chapters and added nineteen. It has a new name, a new cover, and it's a softcover. It's called Principles For Personal Growth. I'm working on two others, which should be out this year.

Have you also checked out my blog, You might like it. It was good hearing from you,



When I asked Dan for permission to print our exchange, I also asked him what he did for a living. This is what he said:

I am a department manager at a retail store. The topics of crush pessimism are of value every day there; I work with minimum wage kids, or the "underemployed." Also, retail managers are often plagued with the feeling that they've underachieved, leading to a preponderance of negativity in the field. As one store manager told me once, "Nobody chooses retail." An over-generalization, true, but one which might reflect popular opinion.

I am also a full-time student at University of Walden, studying Business Administration, and I'll graduate in the spring of this year with a specialization in Human Resources (I'm 36 years old, so it's about time!).

Third, I'm a freelance author working in the role-playing game field. I've co-authored books with Gary Gygax, the man who created Dungeons and Dragons, which was a definite highlight of my life (he died March 2008). I also work with Goodman Games, based in Chicago.

Lastly, I'm something of an "armchair philosopher," though I don't typically write columns. I love the fields of evolutionary psychology, existential philosophy, humanist thought, and I'm a member of the Unitarian Universalist congregations.

Again, I enjoy your work, and thanks. ;-)

- Dan Cross
retail slave, student, freelance author, and armchair philosopher


I thought of something else I'd like to add to this. The reason I didn't call this blog "Positivity" or "The Value of Thinking Positive" is because the focus here is not so much on being positive as it is on getting out of the habit of being mistakenly negative.

In an effort to avoid being a positive goober, I think much of our culture has swung to the other side and it's affecting our health, our level of depression, and our ability to solve problems.

By knowing where the world tricks us into believing negative ideas (
the four biases) and in having a way to clean our thoughts of mistakes (antivirus for your mind), we can stop being self-defeatingly negative without being foolishly positive.

No comments: