2012-05-27

The Importance of Being An Optimist

Everyone experiences ups and downs in life. It is unavoidable. There has never yet lived a man, woman, or child, who did not experience their own share of fortunes both good and bad. What makes one person an optimist and another person a pessimist? In my experience, the difference is attitude.

"I'm Not a Pessimist, I'm a Realist."
That phrase is the calling card of every pessimist in the world. None of them perceive their negative expectations as being genuinely negative. Instead, they see their perspective as being one of deft anticipation of future risks. Life is to be mitigated against. Things will not be optimal, therefore it is best to reduce expectations to the point that sub-optimality can be accommodated.

Before we probe this further, we should take some time to establish an agreement. We all agree - most of us, anyway - that having a negative attitude is a bad thing. They don't call them "bad attitudes" for nothing. While every pessimist would stop short of describing their own attitudes as bad, even the world's most insufferable pessimist will agree that having a bad attitude is a bad thing.

So when does pessimism cross the line and become a bad attitude? More to the point, is pessimism ever anything other than a bad attitude?

Perhaps "realism" is nothing more than the last bastion of a pessimist. Perhaps pessimism itself is the problem. Not convinced? Let's take a closer look.

Positive Versus Negative Narratives
As an optimist, it is important to me that I craft a positive narrative for every future expectation. Pessimists, on the other hand, are not people who lack hope. Instead, they tend to be people whose default narrative for future events is a negative one.

Consider the following: Let's move to a new country.

This is a "future event" pulled from the pages of my own recent experiences. Moving to a new country is a major life event, involving many different dependent factors that must all be organized and executed to reasonable sufficiency. When embarking on such a series of tasks, a pessimist is not someone who merely throws up his/her hands and proclaims, "What's the point? Everything will fail anyway!"

No, a pessimist rather becomes worried about all the many ways the project can fail. Perhaps the movers will be too expensive, or too ill-equipped to handle the job. Perhaps finding a place to live from across a very long distance is too daunting. Perhaps lack of domestic credit history will undermine all efforts to establish oneself.

An optimist sees all these same problems, but rather than being worried by them, the optimist reasons that such obstacles have been overcome by others in similar situations, and can therefore be overcome by the optimist himself/herself. While a pessimist may wrongly proclaim this to be the optimist's "naivete," what actually makes the key difference here is the presence of worry.

An optimist refuses to worry about bad things that haven't yet occurred; a pessimist refuses to believe that good things happen until they actually do occur.

Because the optimist is more skeptical of negative outcomes than positive ones, the optimist quickly constructs a series of positive narratives surrounding future events. When something goes wrong, the optimist quickly generates a new set of positive narratives based on the new circumstances.

The pessimist does the exact opposite. The pessimist is skeptical of positive outcomes, and so quickly constructs a set of negative narratives. When things go right for the pessimist, he/she readjusts to the new data by crafting more negative narratives expressing the expectation that his/her luck is soon to change.

Conclusion
Both the pessimist and the optimist see the world as it truly is. The pessimist is simply more skeptical of positive outcomes than negative ones, skeptical to the point that all future expectations carry a negative narrative. Is this an obstacle to the pessimist's life?

Well, let me ask you this: How much do you think you'll accomplish in life if you don't think you will accomplish much in life? Pessimism isn't merely a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a tautology.

I'd call that having a bad attitude.

An optimist, on the other hand, is so skeptical of negative outcomes that he/she takes all bad news as a statistical aberration, one that is unlikely to be repeated. An optimist believes that things will pan out well, and therefore easily sees many different ways to take advantage of the circumstances - even when the circumstances are bleak. Optimists don't merely find the silver lining in the storm clouds, they see every new situation as potentially advantageous.

How much do you think you'll accomplish in life if you cannot help but think of ways to profit from any situation you come across?

It takes a little mental training, but once you get the hang of it, optimism is a guiding light.