If I had a penny for every time I heard someone say, “Hopefully things will be back to normal soon,” I’d have a much heavier wallet. In times as uncertain as these, our optimism helps us get through the day. It makes waking up to less than ideal circumstances a little more bearable. However, our excessive reliance on optimism is more of a coping mechanism than a pathway to living out our dreams. 

We are bombarded daily with optimism, and it’s embedded in our cultural narrative of the American dream. Politicians inspire through their slogans promising a brighter future. Parents find relief in believing their children will be better off than they are. Students are driven by their hopes that their efforts will pay off and they’ll be balling out on their huge salaries and working their dream jobs soon. 

These are examples of optimism bias, in which we believe the future will be better than the present. While a positive disposition is necessary for improvement in any facet of life, we may have become so helplessly over-optimistic that we have induced a society of very high highs and very low lows. Both of these have serious implications. 

One of those implications is that it makes dealing with reality much more difficult. Last March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was ramping up, former President Donald Trump announced that he wanted the United States to be reopened by Easter, which fell on April 12. His announcement was filled with an upbeat message that the pandemic would be over as quickly as it seemed to start. 

A year later, mandatory lockdowns are still being put in place even in the countries like New Zealand that are handling the pandemic well. Despite this, excessively positive rhetoric of ending the pandemic soon is still being broadcasted by news outlets, politicians, the medical community and hopeful citizens. Though it may be what we want to hear, it is not what we need to hear. That optimism is the reason lockdowns are becoming less effective and the reason why people are constantly feeling let down when they realize the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t as close as others make it seem. 

COVID-19 isn’t the only thing we have been too optimistic about. Our society has become obsessed with optimism overkill. The problem with this is that people don’t get everything they want, so when they are led to believe by unrestrained confidence that they can have it all, not getting it all is a recipe for misery. 

I’ve dealt with this first hand. I was spoon-fed by teachers, the media and even my family that I could do anything I put my mind to. The truth is that everyone has limitations, and there is so much about life that is completely out of our control. 

Being overly optimistic makes it very easy to mistakenly believe that things are more likely to happen than they are. When the things we are overly positive about don’t play out the way we expect, we feel blindsided and as if we are the sole victims of the world’s misfortunes. Optimism causes us to greatly miscalculate the odds of something actually happening. Being overly confident is why I was crushed when I didn’t get the first job I applied for. It’s why people are crushed when they don’t get into their dream school, or when their marriage ends in divorce, or when they haven’t checked off anything on the bucket list they made years ago, all despite the fact that the odds of a favorable outcome were mostly low to begin with. 

College students should be especially wary of excessive optimism. The transition to post-grad life can be jarring. Suddenly students have to contend with the reality that the “real world” isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. The rose-colored glasses come off and suddenly we have to mend the gap between our optimistic expectations and reality. We spend so much time banking on our optimism that we fail to think of the alternative outcomes, so when things don’t play out the way we hoped, we are left shocked, sad and unbalanced. 

None of this is to say that optimism should be avoided at all costs. Innovation is spurred by the optimism that things can always be improved. A cheery disposition helps us pursue our dreams, and it makes getting through the hard times easier. There is even evidence that those who are optimists live longer

The problem is when optimism inhibits our determination to take the necessary steps in the present to positively impact the future. Excessive optimism can trick us into believing that no matter what we do, the future will be bright. Be optimistic. It might just help you live longer. 

But proceed with caution, and be skeptical of people who try to manage present issues with future solutions. 

Theodora Vorias can be reached at tvorias@umich.edu.

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