Today is National Optimist Day. During these turbulent times, it might seem naive to be intentionally cheerful. But practicing optimism, even in uncertain times, may have its benefits. According to a 2018 survey, 85 percent of Americans consider themselves to be optimistic.
However, that general positive outlook is not enough to compensate for an adverse view of the state of the world. According to the survey of 3,000 Americans, it also showed that 54 percent of respondents report anxiety stemming from two key factors: heightened violence and an unstable economy.
But there are perks to thinking positively. Optimists tend to do better in life. They are proactive about securing a better future for themselves and their loved ones, balancing essential relationships, and creating a healthy work-life balance. And having positive expectations for the future is intrinsically linked to better mental health, resilience, flexibility, and problem-solving when times inevitably become rough.
As Black women though, adopting a positive mindset may be more difficult, as we’re faced with a different subset of daily challenges and met with some unmanageable stressors. And while we’d like to be optimistic most of the time, it can be hard. Lauren Michelle Jackson, LCPC, owner of the mental health private practice Cultivate Your Essence, agrees. “A positive mindset is crucial to Black women’s overall personal and professional development. However, this is not always an easy stance for us to take on consistently,” Jackson says.
She believes it’s important for us to cultivate safe spaces of belonging to help us get to a place of optimism. “The better response to Black women creating a positive mindset is to ensure we have emotionally safe communities that allow us to grow this mindset in a healthy and natural state. This includes creating and receiving authentic sisterhoods with others that allow our feelings and experiences to be seen and validated daily.”
Jackson continues, “This ultimately gives us the confidence to know that no matter what is thrown at us, both in a positive and negative light, we can rise to the occasion to forge a positive outcome. And in those times where we may not be able to do this journey alone, knowing that there is a community of women willing to help us cross the finish line inevitably fosters a healthy positive mindset as well.”
Meghan Watson, a psychotherapist, and founder of Bloom Psychology & Wellness believe that practicing optimism can offer several benefits – new beginnings, strengthened relationships, and higher self-esteem. Most importantly, positive thinking can be infectious, widening your community support. “Optimism is a great way to uplift your community and accelerate habits worn down by persistent negativity and low self-esteem. It can be a mindset tool, when used thoughtfully, to navigate through the turbulence of life. We don’t always have to focus on everything going wrong,” she says.
However, there can be a downside to optimism. An obvious one is being delusional. That is, only focusing on things in our life that we’d like to address. Another downside is setting unrealistic expectations, which leads us further from reality, ultimately doing harm down the road. The cost of being overly optimistic is that one may not gauge or fully acknowledge all the possible risks and consequences of a given situation.
“Optimism bias is a common negative effect,” says Watson. She explains that humans are asked to anticipate the future more positively than negatively. “It’s important for us to make accurate predictions about our future, as they can be critical to decision-making that helps us avoid harm and gain benefits and rewards. When we overestimate that positive events are more likely to happen, it can produce lasting disappointment that negatively affects us over time,” she says.
If not careful, optimism can also lead to toxic positivity. Unrestricted alacrity is unrealistic. “When seen as truth, it can be experienced as somewhat dissociated from actual life day-to-day experiences, which are sometimes sad, frustrating, disappointing, and overwhelming,” says Watson.
“Balance is key,” she adds. “The solution is to face our truths and practice mindful self-awareness that doesn’t swing too far in negative or positive directions. We need to allow ourselves to grieve, to have moments of vulnerability, anger, or sadness. That way, we can genuinely lean into joy and positivity when it comes up without it feeling fake, fraudulent, or toxic.”