Toxic Positivity vs. Realistic Optimism

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No one likes a Negative Nellie. On the other hand, a person who constantly tries to sweep the negative under the rug can feel dismissive or perhaps out of touch with reality. Often, this unbridled positivity or refusal to acknowledge the negative can come from a place of discomfort or even a perceived lack of safety. This kind of behavior, seen throughout human history, has recently become known as toxic positivity

If we shouldn’t be negative and too much positivity is “toxic”, or not always helpful, where does that leave us? 

We like to call it realistic optimism, and it’s when we expect the best to happen that can and actively pay attention to the positive information that our brains tend to pass over.

If negativity sees the glass as half empty and positivity sees the glass as half full, realistic optimism sees the glass as half full for now, with the ability to be refilled when the water runs out.

Realistic Optimism

If negativity sees the glass as half empty and positivity sees the glass as half full, realistic optimism sees the glass as half full for now, with the ability to be refilled when the water runs out. It doesn’t ignore that there’s water missing, or that more water will eventually be gone. Yet it recognizes that what’s there is enough for now and thinks about solutions once the inevitable happens.

 In life, realistic optimism looks like:

“Yes, I’m experiencing something difficult right now.

And I have people to help me through it.”


“Yes, this might not be easy to achieve.

And I can learn when things don’t go perfectly the first time.”

Let’s get even more specific with an example of something we can all relate to: the shutdown(s) following the COVID-19 outbreak(s). 

  • Negative Outlook: This has made everything more difficult and I’m so tired of having to do things this way. It’s never going to end. 
  • Positive Outlook: Things aren’t that bad. At least we have Netflix. 
  • Realistically Optimistic Outlook: We’re going through something really challenging right now, and it’s taking a toll. And I’ve gone through hard things before. Even though I wish  this wouldn’t have happened, I’m going to be able to overcome.

Thinking with realistic optimism is something most of us have to train our brains to do. We humans are prone to see the negative, to see the potential threats and what could go wrong. Evolutionarily, this trait was necessary for survival. You’d want to know where the bears were hibernating and which land was bad for producing food. Today, the threats may look different, yet our brains still have this negativity bias. Scientists have said that our brains process anywhere from 3-7 negatives for every ONE positive.

The Positive Pivot

One way we can train our brain to think with realistic optimism is through what’s called the positive pivot. Here’s an example:

Last holiday season, I was on my way to an Ugly Sweater Party. We were having the (un)traditional holiday tacos and I had the important responsibility of bringing tortillas. I had to get my oil changed right before, and due to an uncharacteristically chatty mechanic, I was running late. I hurried out of the shop only to be permanently delayed by a small car accident five minutes down the road. Instantly, a slew of negatives flooded my brain. Repair costs, insurance, missing the party, not being able to go on my weekend trip, and maybe worst of all, being hungry. It took zero effort for my brain to come up with those things. 

And this was the opportunity for a pivot. 

While all those negatives were true, there were some positives I had to remind myself to pay attention to. There was nice weather. The other person involved was kind and calm. My friend sent me pizza while I was waiting for the tow truck. I had free towing. Several people checked in on me. 

The positive pivot trains our brains to pay attention to the positive information around us instead of having tunnel vision on the negative. Very importantly, the positive pivot does not ignore the fact that I got in an accident. It’s not a cover up, an “at least,” or a “look on the bright side.” In other words, my goal with the positive pivot isn’t to pretend the negative didn’t happen. Instead, it’s to help balance out the negativity bias and allow my brain to also take in positive information. 


Next time you find yourself engulfed in negativity or struggling to allow yourself to recognize that there are some thorns in the midst of the butterflies and roses, try this:

1. Acknowledge what you’ve experienced.

  • This is hard. 
  • I’m really struggling, and that’s understandable. 
  • I wish this never happened.

2. Ask yourself: What are some positive pieces of information I can give attention to also?

3. Tell others what would be helpful.

You might want them to give you space to acknowledge the tough spot you’re in, or maybe you’d appreciate if they would help you identify some positives- or both! Whatever it is, let them know. If they are looking out for your best interests, they’ll respect what you ask for and meet you where you’re at. 

Written by Kristen Hayes, Worldmaker Research and Education Manager

Check out other blog posts for more resilience resources.

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