Imagine you’re on a first date or maybe you’re in your boss’s office going over your annual review. Everything is going great but you get an inkling that something is amiss, although there is nothing concrete to put your finger on. Would you decide to wait-and-see or would you instead consider any possible red flags as a deal breaker and decide on finding something different? This is very important because the M.O. an individual follows would determine how successful they will be during their lifetime.

As it turns out the single biggest reason for catastrophic failure – be that working for a crappy boss for decades, having to file for bankruptcy or ending up in divorce court isn’t due to lack of commitment or unwillingness to follow-through. The single biggest factor contributing to any catastrophic failure is preceded by a false sense of optimism.

While many companies, schools and individuals based their organizational policies on the findings from Positive Psychology studies, they missed something very important: in any scientific inquiry, a study can either confirm or debunk a hypothesis it’s testing – but nothing more. Scientific method does not generate new, more correct hypothesies to test. This is a fundamental limitation of a scientific method. Knowing that a theory has supporting evidence doesn’t present researchers with a large picture or a better fitting alternative view. Any edge-cases or unforeseen side effects are omitted and nothing new is brought to light. While the majority of social psychology establishment found itself enamored with principles and findings on happiness and success popularized in the late 90’s, other psychologists were quietly studying optimism’s less popular brother – stoic pessimism.

While many happiness studies found that happy people tend to enjoy life more, are more involved in their communities, have a wider social network, earn slightly more and rate themselves higher in happiness surveys than pessimists, this happy-go-lucky sentiment also harbors inherent risks. While perpetually optimistic individuals might be more pleasant to socialize with, they also tend to achieve less when compared objectively on results with their less optimistic brethern. Further, positivists fail to accurately predict their own chance of success or failure in advance.

This inclination towards optimism and inability to accurately judge risks, in the long run, increases the chance of a catastrophic failure – not because someone is lazy or unskilled, but because to an optimist catastrophic failure seems less likely than statistically probable. This leads to failure to adequately prepare for the possible disaster, however unlikely, and if a disaster strikes – a spouse loses a job, the house catches fire, power goes out for a week in the middle of winter, arguments in a relationship reach critical mass – something that would be a major inconvenience to a well prepared individual ends up unraveling in to a domino effect of bad-getting-worse.

Recent psychological studies also show that most people have unrealistically positive expectations, and only the most “negative” and pessimistic individuals were able to predict a chance of failure in line with statistical expectations – and by extension all the positive and upbeat individuals would be inadequately prepared if anything didn’t go their way.

While common wisdom implies that situations tend to improve in the long run, statistical analysis also shows that in the short term situations tend to get worse before they get better. In some cases much worse, and even if only briefly such catastrophic events – however short-lived – could spell disaster for the unprepared or under-prepared. Positive psychology’s findings prove that fortune favors the bold, and historical evidence demonstrates that an unforeseen mishap destroys the unprepared.

Studies also show that it becomes more difficult to walk away from an unhealthy or unproductive situation the longer one waits. The classical example of such sunken-cost fallacy is remaining in a job that is “not too bad” or continuing a romantic relationship with someone who “isn’t that great, but better than my crazy ex.”

Perhaps next time you find yourself in a situation where you’re presented with a choice – either remaining unhappy or pursuing something else entirely – you will remember that often what is holding us back is the unfounded sense of false optimism, and the way forward isn’t to continue pursuing what doesn’t work with dogged determination.

The real way forward is to completely give up on what doesn’t work and move forward in pursuit of something next.