Realism is Overrated: Why Positivity Gets More Done

Have you ever noticed how input from a pessimistic person almost never requires any action or follow-through? Whether conscious or not, negative people are highly skilled at side-stepping responsibility because they spend their energy suppressing innovative ideas and firing back a problem for every solution.

Positivity, on the other hand, practices staying flexible so that problems can be seen from multiple angles and a wide range of possible solutions can be considered. Choosing to filter problems through this lens takes courage, because positive people are prepared to shoulder the risks and pursue the solutions that push the world forward. This is why positivity is, by far, the more impressive display of mental strength.

Scientifically speaking, negative outlooks are actually more primitive to our natures, whereas positive outlooks are learned. The portion of our brain that activates when we feel negative emotions gets immediate engagement from infancy because it’s also responsible for other functions that a newborn needs to survive. The opposing portion of the brain—the one that lights up when experiencing positive emotions—is the region responsible for language, logic, and problem-solving. Obviously, we don’t start to significantly engage this portion of the brain until further down the road. This means we all have a negative baseline from infancy. 1

This effectively invalidates the notion that some people are more pessimisticly inclined while others are more prone to positivity. We are malleable beings that all share the same "square one", but only some have learned to recalibrate their emotional baseline and strengthen the regions of the brain that reinforce positivity and resilience. 2

But What about the "Realist"?

Let’s take a look at how society normally interprets the various outlooks. People typically see the outlook spectrum as having pessimism on one end, optimism on the other end, and realism in the middle.

This is society’s way of painting realists as the enlightened thinkers, and that to be intellectually grounded you must be emotionally neutral. This is an unfortunate misconception that is, in no way, predicated on actual science. Don’t forget that sharpening our logic and problem-solving abilities only comes by engaging the positive side of our pre-frontal cortex. 1

Also, notice how realists never get mistaken for optimists, but they’re regularly accused of being pessimists. They constantly have to rise to their own defense saying, "I’m not being negative, I’m being a realist.” There’s a reason for this. There’s not a whole lot of value a realist adds to the conversation beyond being decent analyzers of current reality. They’re just slightly less negative versions of pessimists.

So, let’s correct this spectrum.

Humor me as we change the spectrum from being an assessment of outlook to being an assessment of outcome. In other words, what fruit does each end of the spectrum bear? If we see it more as a scale ranging from apathy to action, we gain much more insight into what actually moves the needle.

So, the real measurement of effective outlook is not who can “strike the balance”, it’s to what degree does our outlook solve problems, take thoughtful action, and demonstrate growth. This will only be found on the positive end of the spectrum, my friends.

Aiming for balance between these sensibilities serves no purpose. Instead, work on scaling your intellectual sense alongside your growth toward an outlook that actually makes an impact.

Yes, we can be both critical thinkers and optimistic go-getters. These are not mutually exclusive.

Here’s what I know for sure. People toward the negative end of this spectrum have never boosted innovation, energized solutions-finding, or changed the course of history. Period.

While the majority of the population was complaining about traffic, Elon Musk started searching for a solution to decrease road congestion. Under The Boring Company, there are currently four active initiatives to build tunnel systems in California and Chicago. The goal is to reduce the cost of tunnel-digging and turn it into a rapid construction process so tunnel systems can become a widespread commuting standard.

Positive people create the realities they want to be a part of.

Does a dose of skepticism ever serve us in a positive way? Of course it does, which is why our reconfigured graph wasn’t plotted to a naive extreme. Elon Musk says, “Constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself. Don’t be afraid of negative criticism. It often reveals key insights you’d never discover on your own.3

The takeaway here is that you don’t have to sacrifice optimism in favor of remaining grounded. By all means, allow intuition, real-life experiences, and critical feedback to inform your next actions, but don’t give into the belief that you have to make a binary choice between the two. Those who have learned to hold space for both of these sensibilities to work together have the greatest impact on the world around them.


Works Cited

  1. Annibali, Joseph A. “Why Are We So Negative.” Amen Clinics. Link to Article. Accessed 29 October 2018.
  2. “...the brain has a property called neuroplasticity, the ability to change its structure and patterns of activity in significant ways not only in childhood, which is not very surprising, but also in adulthood and throughout life.” Davidson, Richard. “The Plastic Brain.” The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live—and How You Can Change Them, Kindle, Penguin Group, 2012, pp. 161.
  3. Youshaei, Jon. "Elon Musks 10 Secrets to Success.” Forbes. Link to Article. Accessed 30 October 2018.
Courtney JemisonComment