Reflections on optimism

What does it mean to be an optimist? I do not mean this in a mere lexical sense, i.e. how a dictionary would define an optimist, instead I want to look at it from my own experience and understanding. Prima facie I can make out two possibilities: Either you try to keep a positive attitude even in bad situations and try to find at least something good therein, or you shift your focus on to something positive that has happened or is currently happening in your life until the bad things have passed.

In my social surroundings, I have witnessed the former behaviour a lot. Some did go through a depressive stage and optimism seemed a good way to fight it. But I think here is a misunderstanding: the human brain has a naturally strong negativity bias which is intensified in real depression, therefore a strategy in many therapy approaches would be to actively train the brain to focus more on the positive things…but somehow this got mixed up with the behaviour I described above. At first glance, this optimistic behaviour seems to have actual benefits. Daily hassles seem not as heavy as before and good things seem to happen more often.

Unfortunately this seems to have rather odd consequences. When ´to be optimistic` is equal to ´to always look for the good and positive, even in bad situations` than I wonder, if the ability to be sceptical and questioning is hampered. If one is sceptical (in the common language sense), he is unsure if a certain concept or system really has said consequences. For example, a party with a particular doctrine promises that if they get to be in charge, such and such changes will occur. If we argue with friends or colleagues, if it is a good idea to vote for this party instead of any other, we will point to certain possible consequences, e.g. “when party X is in charge, evidence Y may account for consequence Z”

Now let us assume three people, where one is an optimist, meet and discuss a political event. Person A is for party x, but Person B is against x and instead for party y. Both persons want to convince person C (our optimist) that C should vote their favoured party. How should C decide? If party x is in charge, C will find reasons why it is positive that party x is in charge. If party y is in charge, C will also find reasons why it is positive that party y is in charge. Thus, if C will adhere strictly to his optimistic thinking, any situation is as good as any other.

Of course this is an over-dramatization, you may argue (and rightly so) that this is nonsensical form of optimism and people are in normal circumstances not so generalizing. They will often suspend this behaviour, if it seems to suit them. But I have often met people who will unfortunately argue in a similar way. Thus, upon reflection I decided to reject this form of optimism and instead choose to acknowledge the bad things, try to be critical of them, while still actively trying to sit down and focus on the things that really enrichen my life and give it purpose.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on optimism

  1. I widely agree with what you’re saying – living by the motto “always look on the bright side of life” even in the face of dramatic circumstances seems to me like somehow denying that anything bad has happened at all. Such thinking may then lead to giving a positive meaning to anything. It often goes hand in hand with the notion that the bad thing – whatever it was – was somehow meant to happen and was necessary because it would open the door for something else, for something good. I personally do not think that anything is meant to happen because that’s a way of deterministic thinking which I do not find to be realistic.
    In a nutshell, I think it would be nonsense to say “I’m glad I have been run over by that car because now that my hip is replaced by a steel device I won’t have that problem when I’m old” or – sticking to the Monty Python reference – “thank God I’ve been nailed to that cross – now I’m catching loads of fresh air and don’t need to go to my dull office work”. In my opinion, it is essential to acknowledge that bad things happen and that they are indeed bad and there’s no use in euphemizing. A realistic notion of the situation is way more helpful for finding a way out. What is also of great help in those situations is, as you said similarily, not losing the focus on anything good that is still there even in times of tragedy. By reassuring oneself that there’s at least something worth fighting for, we can gain the strength for going through the misery.

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