Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Is optimism really good for you?

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
August 16, 2012 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says optimism without realism, drive and follow-through can lead to real-world disaster.
Frida Ghitis says optimism without realism, drive and follow-through can lead to real-world disaster.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: Scientists tell us optimism is good for us. Let's not be delusional
  • She says "it's all good" ignores when things aren't; worrying leads us to fruitful action
  • She says Chamberlain in WWII a good example of blind optimism; FDR example of useful optimism
  • Ghitis: Optimism for suckers; pessimism often better. We need to work for happy endings

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer/correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns

(CNN) -- Optimism is all the rage. The enthusiastic cheer of motivational speakers has now received a seal of approval from scientists. So, apparently it's confirmed: Optimism is good for you.

But before we rush full speed down the rah-rah route, let us pause for a moment and see exactly which road we take. We shouldn't confuse the power of positive thinking with the dangerous delusion of wishful thinking. They end at very different destinations.

It's a lesson for countries, politicians, business people and all of us. Optimism by itself can be dangerous. It must always travel in the company of action, common sense, resourcefulness and considered risk-taking.

"It's all good," that irritating, relatively new expression, seems to always come after a description of just how not good it all is; a desperate effort to make the truth go away. It's the new version of "don't worry, be happy."

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

In reality, a little worrying can lead to action, which is the principal way optimism bears fruit.

One of the most inspiring and even charming traits of the U.S. is its founding and enduring spirit of optimism. No doubt, it's a little less visible now, replaced by cynicism. But America was built on a philosophical foundation of not sitting back and accepting unacceptable outcomes, instead standing up to build a better world. That's the right kind of optimism. It's the one that leads to sensible risk-taking. It acknowledges that you don't always win, that when things don't turn out well, you try a different approach and then another until you find a solution, until you reach a new continent, until you write the right constitution, until you invent the right machine.

iReporter: DNC chair says she's 'pretty happy' with economy -- I'm appalled

It's the opposite of defeatism. And it's very different from denial or wishful thinking.

Optimism without thoughtful and determined action can lead to disaster. It's true for individuals, it's true for business, and it's true for nations. History is full of examples.

The poster boy for off-the-rails, disastrous optimism is Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who met with Hitler in 1938 and handed him a big chunk of Czechoslovakia in exchange for the Fuhrer's word. He didn't ask the Czech people what they thought, but he was giddy with excitement when he got off the plane from Munich waving a piece of paper he and "Herr Hitler" had signed. "I believe it is peace for our time," he immortally declared.

When appeasement was inevitably followed by a most horrific, brutal war, we saw a different kind of optimism, the kind that rolls up its sleeves, defies the odds and makes its own luck. Franklin Roosevelt, who presided over a country with a third-rate army, ordered an industrial transformation of the American economy on a scale that seemed simply out of reach, with the focused, urgent aim of defeating the Nazis.

He declared, "Let no man say it cannot be done. It must be done." Many muttered that it couldn't. But the country got to work. Everyone made sacrifices. Everyone pitched in. The U.S. met production goals that were almost inconceivably ambitious. And it turned the tide of war.

The first case (Chamberlain) was optimism supported by wishful thinking, as useful as buying a lottery ticket to fend off bankruptcy. The second (FDR) was optimism propelled by determined action and smart planning. This is the one that works.

Optimism can take the distasteful tone of arrogance, or it can sound like the sunny chirps of the brainwashed. Either one of these can lead to disaster. It's only the optimism that reasons, that considers courses of action and different potential outcomes, that pushes ahead, which truly leads to greatness.

Naked optimism is the currency of casinos in Las Vegas. It's the attitude of overgrown children raised on large servings of phony self-esteem. It's the view of the world -- or of one's own talents -- that ignores the fact that everyone gets it wrong sometimes; that no matter how smart you are, there are always events that will remain out of your control, that there are always things you do not know, and there are always some people who are smarter than you.

It's this kind of arrogance passing for self-confident optimism that gave us the economic mess we have had for the past five years. It's the optimism that falsely promised home prices could only go up, so we should borrow as much as possible, regardless of income; a confidence that boasted that complicated financial ideas and convoluted market hedging made for bulletproof Wall Street portfolios.

We know where all that optimism took us.

The ones who predicted disaster, the ones who saw a major collapse coming, were the ones who got it right. They were the ones who became superstars. Yes, sometimes the pessimists are right. But the optimists can learn from them. The action-oriented optimists, the ones who don't see life as a casino but as a place where one has to make the right decisions to obtain the desired outcomes -- to make the world a better place or our lives more worth living -- see disasters as occasions to learn, to find out what we should have done differently, to come up with new strategies.

Scientists tell us that scans show our brains are wired for optimism. We register positive lessons more than negative ones. And that's partly, they say, because optimism is good for our health.

Perhaps that's true. But science goes on, and scientists often change their minds. What is true now and always will be is that things don't always go the way we want. People don't always do what we would like. And life, like history, politics, the economy and the stock market, is full of surprises, including some very painful ones.

So, we can't simply sit back and wait optimistically for everything to work out. We need to do our part to make the stories have happy endings.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT