Optimism is the only way.
This is the tag-line of my website. I end all of my videos by saying it. Why? I did a lot of thinking about optimism, and I found it to be the best way to live. For me, it is the only way. And I hope it is the only way for you, as well.
Recently, Psychology Today has posted an article: “The Uses and Abuses of Optimism and Pessimism”, and I would like to respond to some of the claims that the article makes against optimism.
First of all, I will define what I mean when I say “Optimism”
Optimism is not an eternally blissful state.
It doesn’t make you neglect reality; it’s just a way of looking at reality. With optimism, you do expect good things to happen. You also expect bad things to happen. The best part about my optimism is how it helps me deal with the bad things that happen in my life. Now, let me examine the views presented in the article.
I agree with many points that the article makes. Optimism does help us when we are in a bad situation, clinging to the hope of a better future. The part of the article that I disagree with, however, is how pessimism can help us, by “…spinning down our expectations (“I probably won’t get this prestigious award/coveted assignment/hot date”), it insulates us from crushing disappointment when things don’t go our way.” No, I don’t believe that this is the right perspective. Yes, it insulates us from crushing disappointment, but it also forms a pattern of habitual thinking. If you constantly believe that you’re not going to get that hot date, you probably won’t. This habitual pattern of ‘shielding yourself from disappointment’ can be toxic to your long-term success. It’s best to believe that you WILL get that promotion/date. When you do, you will be ecstatic and proud of yourself (albeit unsurprised).
“If you’re up for a promotion at work and optimistically believe that you’ll get it, you’ll have to absorb a big blow to your self-image and self-esteem when you don’t receive it.” This is where my definition of optimism disagrees with the definition in the article.
Rejection is FUEL for my optimism.
Whenever I am rejected in any area of life, I get THRILLED. I know that every ‘no’ is one step closer to ‘yes’. If you accuse me of being happy-go-lucky, then maybe I am. But I will tell you that when you take this approach, probability is on your side (as long as you keep pursuing your goal).
“Optimists never get the joy of a pleasant surprise.” Again, I get pleasant surprises all of the time. Though the feeling of surprise is a little bit different. Whenever I set goals and eventually achieve them, I am ecstatic. In addition, as I am engaged in meaningful and positive work, I find all of these interesting things happening (awesome people showing up in my life, great e-mails, unexpected daily occurrences). I would say that these surprises are worth more than any surprise that a pessimistic point of view could bring me.
I do see the merits of “dynamic pessimism”, though. It “involves imagining all the things that might go wrong in the future. It spurs us to take actions to head off the potential catastrophes we conjure and prevent them from happening. Individuals who employ such a tactic, researchers report, hardly fit the stereotype of sad-sack Eeyores moaning about the gloomy state of the world”.
This idea has tremendous benefit, but only in one way. WRITING IT DOWN.
If you keep the problems in your head, the mind may start spinning in “worry circles”. You could get caught up in pessimism. If you write down the potential future problems on paper, and brainstorm solutions, this prevents your brain from going in circles. It gives you a definite frame of reference. Again, optimists DO take measures to prevent bad things from happening. They do all that is within their power to ensure their success. In “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” by Dale Carnegie, there is a very effective exercise along these lines:
1. Ask yourself, “What is the worst that can possibly happen if I can’t solve my problem?”
2. Prepare yourself mentally to accept the worst – if necessary
3. Calmly try to write down ways to improve your situation
^ This is optimism, according to my definition. This is not “breezy optimism (Everything will go fine!).
I cannot stand it when society thinks of optimism in this light.
We are not irrationally positive. We don’t think everything is alright. We plan for the future. We just like to believe that things will work out for the best. This does not mean that we assume things will work out for the best, and don’t take precautions in the case that they don’t. When things turn out for the worst, we may despair for some time, but we eventually get back up.
Martin Seligman: “The idea that optimism is always good is a caricature. It misses realism, it misses appropriateness, it misses the importance of negative emotion.” Again, I’m led to examine my own definition of optimism. I’m beginning to think that I do incorporate many of the suggestions in this article, but I call all of it “optimism”. Perhaps my definition of optimism encapsulates many of the positive things that self-examination, negative emotions, and realism have to offer.
Optimism does not mean that you have to be happy all of the time.
I feel negative emotions. However, I am the happiest that I’ve been in 2 years right now. Why? Because I engage in meaningful work every day. I agree with Martin Seligman’s view. “It’s not happiness we should be seeking, but “a life of well-being,” Seligman notes. In his view, that life has four parts. Only one of them is positive emotion. The three others are engagement with what one is doing, a sense of accomplishment, and good relationships. Happiness has been unceremoniously demoted.” Happiness is a by-product, never a goal in itself. It never has been, and that is the dilemma. I have never been happy in my life during times in which I pursued happiness. The happiest times of my life involve two, three, or even all of the categories that Seligman mentioned.
I feel misunderstood as an optimist. Everyone is attacking us.
They’re saying that we’re impractical. That our heads are in the clouds. Sometimes, I feel like an idiot for being an optimist when so many bad things are happening in this world. But then I think to myself: “Wait a minute! This optimism is not impractical. You’re doing meaningful work. You’re living a good life, with good friends. You’re helping out other people. I don’t see anything wrong with my way of life. I see it as the only way of life. And yes, I do believe that everyone has the capacity to live the way that I live. Some have it much more difficult than others (possibly due to genetics), but that doesn’t mean that we should give up.
The longer we engage in a pattern of thinking, the harder it is to deviate.
If you have been a pessimist all of your life, then it will be extremely difficult to begin thinking more optimistically (notice that I didn’t say positively. There’s a difference between positive thinking and optimistic thinking). Optimistic people do get extremely angry. They get angry with all of the injustices they see in society. They get angry when things don’t go their way in life. They use the anger as fuel for their optimism. They use it to move forward, rather than stay in one place.
We are misunderstood, but it’s okay.
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