You can dream it, but you will probably never do it.

Мечты_Стеллы_МарисHow many times have you heard “if you can dream it, you can do it?” Well evidently if you can dream it you consider yourself happier, even if you never get around to doing it. And you are also similar to the majority of people who continue to believe things will get better despite never accomplishing their dreams.

Psychologists and researchers have been intrigued at how people continue to hold on to unrealistic views of their future. According to psychologists Shelly Taylor and Jonathon Brown positive illusions are fairly common in normal thought and fall into three categories:

  • People see themselves in an unrealistically positive manner as shown by the fact that the majority of people assume that they are “above average” in many areas
  • People assume that they have more control over environmental events than they actually do
  • People see the future as turning out better than data indicates it will

Taylor and Brown’s research indicated that established criteria for judging mental health included contentment; caring for others and its corollary, caring about others; ability to do productive and creative work; openness to new people; and receptiveness to new ideas. Most crucially they noted that a person’s mental health is judged on exhibiting a positive attitude concerning oneself, also known as having high self-esteem.

Self-esteem typically comes from how an individual believes other people view him or herself. This means our current view of mental health is based a curious conundrum. People tend to believe others view them highly, when in reality others view them as less able than themselves. As this contradiction becomes evident, people spread the high appraisals to those within their immediate group.

Taylor and Brown also found that research showed that people see their friends in a more positive light than the average person. In fact close friends are given more credit for success and less blame for failure than those outside one’s group. This means the average individual assumes that his or her immediate acquaintances are better than average, just like he or she is. Now we come to our second conundrum. This bias seems to be the opposite of openness to new people and very similar to the idea of prejudice against those outside of one’s group.

It is ironic that an unrealistically positive attitude about oneself which results in a sense of group superiority has been deemed “healthy” in the twentieth century. However, the ability to sustain these optimistic illusions is generally considered an indication of good mental health. Previously psychologists have asserted that a realistic self-assessment was necessary for this, but that would leave much of the world’s population being deemed as lacking in mental health. So the illusion remains and we are content to keep dreaming, without doing, just like almost everyone else.

Photo: “Мечты Стеллы Марис” by Stella Maris – https://500px.com/photo/86751947/in-dreams-by-stella-maris. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Taylor, S. E. & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. , American Psychological Association, Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193—210.
Taylor, S. E. & Brown, J. D. (1994). Positive Illusions and Well-Being Revisited Separating Fact from Fiction, Psychological Bulletin, American Psychological Association, Vol. 116, No. 1, 21-27
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