Delusional Optimism: We All Need A Refreshing Dose Of Reality

funny-pictures-cat-is-wearing-a-grumpAmerica has bought into the concept of Self-Esteem = Success. Every pop psychology self-help book touts the same fluffy nonsense: change your mind and it will change your life for the better. Think positively and you can succeed at anything you put your mind to. Unfortunately it's unfounded and unscientific.

This morning my friend Tim linked me to an article titled Positively Misguided: The Myths & Mistakes of the Positive Thinking Movement. It's well worth the read. In January, I wrote about something similar: The Law of Attraction- and the Secret- Are Bullshit. Well, we can see who's more highbrow. :P  But it comes down to the fact that having high self-esteem and a delusional positive mental attitude is not helpful. The article is a bit long, so I'm going to paraphrase it for those of you with a short attention span:

  • Pathological Hope: a tantalizing world view of optimism that disregards evidence, common sense, setting and implementing realistic goals, establishing and observing priorities, and recognizing valid limitations and obstacles.

  • By 2010, the self-improvement industry is projected to reach $14 billion. It centers around the concept of the Positive Mental Attitude (PMA): defined by faith in the catalyzing effect of optimism, self-confidence and other woo thinking. Be positive and you can live the American Dream! Especially if you cherry-pick your anecdotal evidence!

  • Corporate America spends billions of dollars on motivational speakers, seminars and wilderness programs designed to instill a positive, confident outlook. That's instead of brushing up on actual skills and training.

  • Wall Street is driven by optimism or the lack thereof much more than common sense and practicality. Shake up the confidence of the market and it will do a nosedive, even though the solvency of all those companies hasn't changed.

  • In sports winning and losing can all be explained by positive mental attitude. It isn't about the countless rigorous hours of training and fitness, the special diets, the determination and will of pushing oneself to great lengths of achievement. No. It's about glorifying the mental game instead. Who wanted it more.

  • "Americans want to be positive, to surround themselves with others who are positive, to entrust their destinies and very lives to those who exude positivity. What America really believes in is belief."

  • We've come to believe that attitude is more important than skill, which is our downfall. Hard work, patience, scholarship, self-discipline, self-sacrifice, diligence and other ingredients of success are discarded and downplayed, to our detriment.

  • "“Pessimism … is the most un-American of philosophies.” Positivity is in the American gene. It’s also subtly evoked in the founding precept of American democracy, the poetic declaration that “all men are created equal,” which proponents of mental attitude have bastardized to imply that “all men [and women] are equally capable.” Or, as the self help gurus say, “Don’t let anyone take away your dreams!”" Again, sheer nonsense!

  • The Secret has over 6 million books and DVDs in circulation, which argues that we are "living magnets". The author claims “there is not anything any human cannot be, do or have...not a single thing. No limits whatsoever.” So it's all mind over matter. How wonderfully simple, and unscientific, and downright wrong. It flies in the face of the basic laws of the physical world. How far removed from reality (crazy) does that make you if you believe your thoughts control what is attracted to you?

  • Visits to alternative practitioners of all kinds of alternative medicine outnumber traditional family doctors almost 2 to 1. So people are paying huge amounts of money to visit quacks with no scientific basis instead of board-certified and properly trained medical doctors with degrees and scientific based medicine.

  • Self esteem based education was started in the 1970s as a social experiment. It was argued that a healthy ego would help students achieve greatness. So the more self esteem kids had the better, even though researchers didn't know much about what self-esteem would do for the kids. This was to the detriment of traditional scholarship. Protect the child from any kind of failure, pass them so that they don't get their self esteem bruised and so that they stay with their friends, grade on a curve, don't correct papers in red ink. Celebrate mediocrity. Unfortunately, this led to students who were passed who couldn't, or wouldn't, do higher level work, and ended up deep in the educational system, unable to read, write or do basic math. American kids have extremely high self esteem now, even though their performance is sub-par. When asked, they give themselves high marks for lousy work. Other countries, like Japan who emphasize learning are far ahead. We just can't compete with them while we continue to emphasize self-esteem over learning.

  • "The real lesson here, though, isn’t that massive doses of positivity failed to yield brilliance — it’s that the obsession with cultivating optimism and “inner strength” actually proved counterproductive. It is now clear that not only did self-esteem-based educational methodologies not produce excellence, they actually undermined it."

  • These same kids have also been shielded from the "real world". They have no coping skills for dealing with adversity as a mature adult.

  • Also, by creating a climate of entitlement, these kids have been trained to feel good about self-serving behaviors that are less than moral. Studies reveal that cheating, lying and stealing by high school students is spiraling upwards alarmingly. A report noted that almost 3/4 of students admitted to cheating in 2001.

  • Now we have created narcissistic kids. Narcissism, which is rampant today, is an exaggerated sense of one's place in the world. Narcissists need others only for their usefulness to feed their sense of grandiosity. But the paradox is that they crave constant validation, never secure in their bloated self-worth. "Is it not reasonable that such a condition might result from schooling that touts empty, unsubstantiated self-worth?"

  • And there's a growing body of research that links narcissism with aggression. Ultra high self esteem is a strong marker for serious antisocial behavior. A study in 1998 found that often the highest levels of self-worth/narcissism are found in serial killers, drug dealers and other misanthropes.

  • "The “zero limits” subculture argues that anything is possible through the sheer and single-minded application of will." Simply untrue.

  • And if a guru champions The Secret mentality, then they strongly imply that people who don't follow their philosophy bring all kinds of doom and gloom onto themselves. Which is patently false.

  • "Positive mental attitude relies greatly on argument-by-example, touting successful, positive people as proof that “you can do it, too!” From an evidential standpoint, it’s crazy to cherry-pick successful people, ask them about their state of mind, discover that they feel good about life, then use that “research” in arguing that a positive attitude promotes success. How many unsuccessful people also felt positive — until their lives took an unexpected turn for the worse?"

  • You too can be president someday, if you really want to! This kind of thinking is nonsensical. In your adult lifetime from age 35 up, you'll have about 1o presidencies available to about 150+ million Americans. You do the math on what your real chances are. You have a greater chance of being struck by lightning, but don't worry there's virtually no chance that will happen either.

  • Often positive thinking expresses itself as an aversion to contingency planning. I like the phrase, hope for the best, but plan for the worst. But if you insist on thinking positively and get upset when anyone says anything "negative", that's delusional optimism. "We reward optimism and interpret pessimism as disloyalty.”

  • “The cost of preparing for critical events that do not occur is generally very small in comparison to the cost of being unprepared for those that do.” This is addressing risk. It's good and cost effective.

  • Then there's the dogged refusal to admit defeat. Good money gets thrown after bad, because if you truly believe, how can you fail?

  • “The most dangerous person in corporate America is the highly enthusiastic incompetent. He’s always running too fast in the wrong direction.”

  • A positive outlook may be bad for business. A study found that crankier employees were superior to their upbeat counterparts in a job assembling circuit boards. "The cheerful people were too invested in their cheerfulness and devoted significant energy to perpetuating it. Their grimacing co-workers simply threw themselves into their work — and did it better: Malcontents made half as many mistakes."

  • Just look at the housing disaster we're in now. Delusional optimism played a huge role, and the bubble finally had to burst. It isn't sustainable. Reality breaks in at some point. It has to.

  • Here is a “a guaranteed way to never achieve your goals… Let’s say that you are broke, overweight, and have no friends. You decide to apply positive thinking… You tell yourself that you are lucky to be you and walk around with a smile on your face. Is this really addressing the problem?” No. Now you're just lying to yourself. Instead work out, be friendly, and save your pennies, just like the truly successful people. It is discontent that “motivates action and change.”

  • Expect failure…but keep trying. Expect failure? In a study done with dieters, it was found that the anticipation of failure — combined with the will to persevere — paved the way for success. This is a good phrase to keep in mind. It's based on common sense. Of course pop culture will never go for it. They'd rather embrace the lies of the positive mental attitude.


Well, that turned out to still be long, but hopefully you got through it and got something out of it.

Here's something I found quite some time ago. The Differences Between Optimists and Pessimists. When you read the definitions, it is apparent (to me, at least) that both optimists and pessimists are not being realistic. In fact, they are both delusional in very different ways. I prefer to be a Pragmatist.

"Optimists explain positive events as having happened because of them (internal). They also see them as evidence that more positive things will happen in the future (stable), and in other areas of their lives (global). Conversely, they see negative events as not being their fault (external). They also see them as being flukes (isolated) that have nothing to do with other areas of their lives or future events (local)."

"Understandably, if you’re an optimist, this bodes well for your future. Negative events are more likely to roll off of your back, but positive events affirm your belief in yourself, your ability to make good things happen now and in the future, and in the goodness of life." NOT TRUE! See Pragmatism below.

"Pessimists think in the opposite way. They believe that negative events are caused by them (internal). They believe that one mistake means more will come (stable), and mistakes in other areas of life are inevitable (global), because they are the cause. They see positive events as flukes (local) that are caused by things outside their control (external) and probably won’t happen again (unstable)."

"Realists see things relatively clearly, but most of us aren’t realists. Most of us, to a degree, attribute the events in our lives optimistically or pessimistically." So instead of trying to be realistic, let's all go to fantasy land class and become more optimistically delusional. That's basically what it's saying, which is crazy thinking.

Pragmatists, on the other hand, see the world in a matter of fact way, assessing situations and solving problems realistically. They accept the facts of life and deal with practical consequences. This is how I try to live my life. It isn't always easy, but it seems much more sensible than lying to myself and everyone else.


Hey, we could come up with a fun experiment to test. Any suggestions? I was thinking something like for 1 day we keep a journal, simply observing our thoughts, both positive and negative, without trying to change them. Then maybe for day 2, we think positively and optimistically and keep a journal of those thoughts and our observations. Day 3 would be to be cynical and negative with the journal of observations. And day 4 would be pragmatic, practical, realistic thinking and attitude with the journal of observations. Your suggestions and thoughts are most welcome. I'd love to collate all of that into a page or post or something to share with the class, if we could do it. Anyway, let me know what you think! I first thought a week for each type of thinking would be better, but it might be hard to keep up. Email Me at if you're interested or comment below.


  1. I agree with your general premise, that positivity doesn't feed the kids, figuring out how to get the food and learning to cook it does. But positivity and skill-building are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I think there's lots of room for some positivity among us atheists, who are often brooding, arrogant, and a little dark. Positivity can mean cracking the mind open to creative problem solving and searching, not just to delusions. Believing that a solution can exist is prerequisite to finding an effective one.

    And I definitely take issue with your slam on alternative medicine. There's plenty of good science behind some alternative medicine theory and practice (like the hygiene hypothesis, bacteriophage, etc.). There is no greater whore in science than the one who is on the pharmaceutical dole, which is the biggest chunk of the current medical industry. Pharmaceutical tentacles reach into every single aspect of it from med school on down. Dupont made pot illegal in 1937 because it couldn't patent it, and we've been fighting an inane, unjust, and horribly expensive drug war ever since. Western medicine is often a front for science, not the real thing.

  2. Hi Cat,
    First, there's a huge difference between have a positive, happy outlook on life and fostering a Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) which is based on delusional optimism.

    In my case, I'm an atheist but I'm quite happy and generally have a sunny disposition. But I'm definitely not an optimist. I am a pragmatist. I see the world as it is, which is still pretty damned awesome.

    And regarding alternative medicine: by its very definition it is outside of conventional medicine, which means it is not proven effective in clinical studies. You can rely on it all you like. But it doesn't mean it's actually doing anything for you beyond the placebo effect.

    Most studies done on alternative medicine are done by proponents of such modalities, which bring into question ethics and proper scientific techniques.

    While there may be something to the pharmaceutical companies being "evil", it doesn't rule out the effectiveness of modern medicine based on scientific evidence and proper study.

    To make the quantum leap from drug companies turning all of modern medicine proponents into "whores", to only alternative medicine is pure and good and natural and wonderful, when there are virtually no good studies done that show that any of it works better than placebo effectively and consistently, is downright dangerous and patently false.

  3. Great post Neece!

    I hate to tell you this, Cat, but all of the atheists I know personally are not brooding, arrogant, or a little dark. I must be hanging with the wrong atheists, I guess.

    Pragmatism is key.

    There's a great Tim Minchin quote about alternative medicine... If it worked, it would just be medicine.

    And sorry, Dupont had very little to do with making pot illegal- A simple web search indicates that Harry Anslinger and William Hearst conspired to outlaw opiates, cocaine and marijuana using racism and violence to draw national attention to a problem Anslinger wanted to create so he could use his post at the Bureau of Narcotics as an amazing career opportunity.

    The Dupont thing seems to be a favorite myth of the conspiracy minded.

    Things are never that black and white.

    The main problem the pharmaceutical companies have is over medication and too much reliance on old drugs- drugs that bacteria and viruses are evolving resistance to that make them weaker and not as effective. That's just one of the reasons when you're prescribed antibiotics they now give you three different kinds in one pill, and make sure you take them all, even if you think you are better.

  4. Hi Steve!
    Yeah, I'm not brooding or arrogant. I do have to say my sense of humor is a bit dark though. :P I don't know any atheists that are brooding and arrogant. Most are very nice.

    I love Tim Minchin. Maybe that's where I heard that quote. If alternative medicine worked it would just be medicine! He's brilliant.

    You're so right, things are never black and white. I've heard that the whole thing about making pot illegal was about racism, just like that article said. Thanks for that link.

    I don't think the pharmaceutical companies are innocent, or operate totally ethically. Personally I think advertising medications on tv is crazy. But the general population is to blame in a lot of ways. They clamor for pills to solve their problems effortlessly. Or when it comes to antibiotics, they don't take them as prescribed, which leads to drug resistant bacteria. It's all a bit of a mess, but it doesn't mean that all of modern medicine is evil and only ancient magical practices are good.

  5. A humorous side note. In China, where Teresa is from, they have ancient mystical medicine that comes from... America. Yeah. Here. American herbs and roots that are said to have healing properties.

    Here in America, we have ancient Chinese wisdom about ancient mystical medicine.

    And no matter where it comes from, it's still horse poop.

  6. Wow! That's CRAZY! I didn't know that!
    I recently heard they are big into blood type as a determination of personality over there, too. I guess no culture is immune to such things. Sigh...

  7. I did that experiment for an English 104 Project last month. 2 weeks of pure, unrelenting optimism. I'm currently finishing the paper. I could email it to you if you'd like.

  8. Yes, Scott, that sounds interesting! Send it to my email address which is at the top left of the page. :)