Being able to think positively would seem to provide a straight path to good mental health. Optimistic people seem happy and content with their lives. Those with a glass-half-full view of the world not only seem happy but also seem like the type of people you’d like to get to know. Who wants to be around someone who always emits a cloud of negativity?
Perhaps you have a good friend with this sunny disposition. Over the years, you’ve come to rely on this person to cheer you up when you’re down. During the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ve become especially reliant on this individual to help you focus your attention away from the alarming numbers of cases and instead onto the inspiring stories in your social media feed. This person might even suggest that the statistics are overblown and that you should go on with your life as if nothing in the world has really changed.
According to James Collard and Mathew Fuller-Tyskiewicz of Cairnmiller Institute and Deakin University (Australia), respectively, such positive illusions may carry a risk not only for your physical health (in the case of COVID) but also for your mental health. Based on earlier work by psychologist Roy Baumeister (1989), the “Optimal Margin of Illusion” would suggest it's best to maintain a slight tilt in the positive direction just short of blatantly distorting the truth. The Australian authors point out, however, that such rose-colored views of the world can only be beneficial for so long. As they observe, “A broader view of mental health and a longer-term perspective may instead result in quite different conclusions about the role of positive illusions in mental health” (p. 3).
You might very well ask, what’s the harm in putting a spin on a bad situation? Why not let yourself feel better at the moment? The answer, according to Collard and Fuller-Tyskiewicz, is that “simply equating mental health to momentary subjective well-being (SWB), or happiness, is not a sufficient criterion… those who maintain a high level of well-being through illusions may be at risk of engaging in unhelpful behaviors” (p. 3). Some of these risks, as stated by the authors, can promote disease, if individuals believe that it’s perfectly fine to smoke, have unprotected sex, and engage in “problematic” drinking. Failure to follow COVID-19 guidelines would seem to fall into this category.
Using survey data from the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, the authors obtained a sample of 528 men and 751 women, averaging 60 years of age. Participants also had the option of agreeing to complete the survey on a yearly basis, providing key longitudinal data. There were four categories of positive illusions tapped by the survey instrument: Self-Enhancing Beliefs, Beliefs Rejecting Imperfection, Irrational Beliefs of Control, and Irrationally Optimistic Beliefs. Participants rated themselves from 0-10 on such items as “I am always successful at the things I do,” and “I never make mistakes.”
Based on the assumption that coping adds to the illusion-mental health equation, the Australian researchers included a measure to assess the ways that participants handled challenging situations. In primary control, an individual agrees that “I use my skills to overcome the problem.” In secondary control, when you don’t actually try to meet the challenge, you would agree that “I remind myself that I am better off than others.” Finally, in so-called “relinquished” coping, you give up altogether, thus agreeing with the statement that the way you cope is to “spend time by myself.”
Turning now to the findings: In the statistical analysis that put all the positive irrational beliefs together in one higher-order factor, the authors report that looked at in this global fashion, people with a generally optimistic outlook on life seemed happier and less stressed. This overall result suggested to the researchers that there may be a dispositional tendency for people in a good mood to say they are less anxious and stressed.
However, when the authors broke down the overall optimism factor, a very different statistical picture emerged. Specifically, people scoring high on each of the positive illusion subscales took one at a time also scored high on the study's measures of anxiety, depression, and stress. In the words of the authors, "From the results it is suggested that efforts to promote or maintain such positivity through irrational, or illusory, beliefs are in fact detrimental to mental health." It's fine to be an optimist, but only if that optimism has a basis in reality.
This set of findings suggests that the problem with illusory beliefs is that they can take a great deal of mental effort to maintain. When things are bad, you have to work hard to pretend that they’re good. When those mental gymnastics ultimately fail, then the “disconfirmation of such beliefs can result in an unpleasant (i.e., depressive) experience for the individual,” as the authors note (p. 15).
In terms of self-esteem, positive illusions seem to present a risk for a similar reason. When you hold unrealistically high views of yourself, you will eventually run into situations that challenge your self-image. Believing that you’re terrific won’t prepare you for situations in which your actual abilities lead you to fail. In addition to positive self-esteem, you also need to possess some underlying skills. Perhaps you go into a challenging trivia contest convinced that you can beat anyone. When you end up with an ignominious loss, you’ll be more devastated than if you went into the contest knowing your own strengths and limitations.
The results from the measures of coping further support the idea that a realistic attitude serves better in maintaining mental health. People with high scores on the “beliefs rejecting imperfection” scale tended to cope in less adaptive ways with challenging situations. As the authors observe, “This finding can possibly be explained by the outcomes of irrational beliefs, which have been suggested to include abdication of responsibilities and the blaming of others for the negative events” (p. 15). When something goes wrong, in other words, do you shift all the blame to others? Doing so may preserve your illusory optimism, but won't remedy a bad situation.
To sum up, being an optimist is not the same as being mentally healthy. Positive illusions may give you a quick mood boost, but your long-term fulfillment requires that you look at the world through clear, not rosy, glasses.