The Difference Between Being Optimistic And Being Irrational

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There’s optimism and then there’s irrational optimism.

That’s what happiness researcher Shawn Achor says. He’s spent years studying the topic, and in a recent talk for OWN’s “SuperSoul Sessions” speaker series, Achor shared a story about what it means to be irrationally optimistic. It happened when he found himself alone in a car with the CEO of a software company, in California.

Achor had just given another one of his research-based talks to several CEOs, and when it came time for him to head to the airport, an executive offered to give Achor a ride.

“One of the CEOs offered to drive me to the airport to talk about how he could cascade this research out to his entire company, using these e-courses and digital interventions,” Achor recalls. “I was so excited.”

When the two got on the road, however, Achor was distracted by something the CEO did. Or, rather, didn’t do.

“While he was speeding towards the airport, that little bell was going off on his car — the seatbelt bell,” Achor says. “I turned to him and I said, ‘You don’t wear seatbelts?’ And he said, ‘No, Shawn, I listened to your talk. I love your research. I’m an optimist.'”

No, you’re an idiot, Achor thought to himself.

“Optimism is great for a lot of things, but it doesn’t stop cars from hitting us. It doesn’t stop reality from impinging upon us,” he says. “That’s irrational optimism.”

Irrational optimism isn’t just dangerous to us as individuals, Achor adds. It can have a profound negative impact on society as a whole.


Optimism is great for a lot of things, but it doesn’t stop cars from hitting us.
Shawn Achor, happiness researcher

“If we sugar-coat the present with our optimism, we make bad decisions for the future. We don’t change the things we need to in this world,” he says. “If we sugar-coat the present, we don’t stop the discrimination we see, we don’t stop the violence we see happening in this world, we don’t stop the inequalities.”

What we need to do instead, Achor urges, is create rational optimism.

“Rational optimism does not start with rose-colored glasses,” Achor explains. “It stars with a realistic assessment of the present.”

Also on HuffPost: Shawn Achor explains how joy is the exact opposite of pleasure

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