The (Lack of) Power of Positive Thinking

Most people these days are feeling some combination of hope, frustration, stress and even despair.

While research tells us most people gravitate towards positivity, we all operate with our distinct level of optimism. But is optimism enough to make it through our current crisis?

No, according to Korn Ferry’s CEO, Gary Burnison. In fact, as Burnison points out, optimism can actually cover over a blindspot. In conducting nearly 70 million assessments of professionals, Korn Ferry found that 80% of respondents have at least one trait or capability they overestimate.  “Too much optimism could anchor us in the old—and threaten us with irrelevancy,” warns Burnison, “We need healthy pessimism so we can wipe the board, erasing what’s no longer relevant, and give ourselves a clean slate on which to imagine tomorrow.”

Part of what Burnison is pointing out here is optimism bias. Referred to as "the illusion of invulnerability," or "unrealistic optimism," this is the mistaken belief people have that they are less likely than their peers to befall hardship or experience a negative event.

Cognitive scientists note this bias can be seen in cultures all over the world and, like many such biases, can lead to poor decision-making. Yet they point to the fact that in the right circumstances, this bias has its benefits. After all, positive thinking can also act as a self-fulfilling prophecy, encouraging us to take smart risks or seek out a stretch challenge. We see this in most successful people, who started out by believing they could be.

I would argue that to imagine tomorrow—as Burnison suggests—we need three things: positive thinking, a strong foothold in reality, and a deep and enduring sense of purpose.

This is what Victor Frankl, the Viennese psychiatrist who survived four years of German concentration camps, exhibited. “Continuing to live despite persistent world-weariness” is the subject of Yes to Life in Spite of Everything, a collection of newly found lectures Frankl gave in 1946. Here, he makes the case that “everything depends on each person, through action and not mere words, creatively making the meaning of life a reality in his or her own being.” He was present with the truth of his circumstances, took an optimistic perspective on them, and held onto purpose no matter what horrors he endured.

“Optimism, . . . by itself, cannot provide meaning,” says psychologist Martin Seligman, Director of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center. Seligman describes optimism as a tool to help the individual achieve the goals he or she has set. “It is in the choice of the goals themselves that meaning— or emptiness—resides,” he says

In a world turned upside down by the coronavirus, natural disasters, and a pivotal pending election, the question isn’t “How optimistic are you?” but “With the hope you have, what are you working towards?”

Seligman defines three different kinds of happiness: The Pleasant Life, The Good Life, and The Meaningful Life. Often the most enduring kind of happiness, The Meaningful Life, is what happens when we leverage our highest strengths and talents in order to serve something we believe in that is larger than ourselves.

I’m optimistic. Not because I believe the current crises are going to get better on their own. But that, driven by hope and purpose, we can all be a part of solving them.



Originally published on October15, 2020 by Daniel Goleman on Daniel Goleman, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and co-developer of the Goleman EI online learning platform, is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, is available now. 

Strategic Management Search & Recruitment Career Transition Executive Coaching