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
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT