Global Resilience Solutions > 2012 > February

The Optimism Trap (yes, really!)

Here is a  simple truth: you control your life.  And your thoughts and feelings color your experience like nothing else. How do you view your life?  Through rose-colored glasses or with a more negative outlook?  This is important because it affects your life in every possible sense.  Therefore, remain conscious of the emotions that you cultivate as you go through your day.   And you are always deciding which emotions to cultivate as you move through your day.  So do you think perhaps making those decisions consciously would be a good idea?

For a long time, we were advised to be optimistic. “Think positive!” was everywhere. Optimism does have some real merit. Research has shown that optimism has positive benefits when applied to ventures such as entrepreneurship  – it’s difficult to even imagine taking the risk of starting a new business venture in the face of harsh statistics such as that less than half of new businesses succeed beyond five years. But they do – thanks to optimism. Or take the job hunter who shows up to interview after interview despite the harsh economic climate  – he or she has to believe that this next job will be the one!  Who would ever take a chance if they didn’t think positively?

Think of the geniuses of recent centuries: from Nicola Tesla to Beethoven, there is one particular trait they had in common. They kept trying where others gave up. Only blind optimism could have led to the discoveries and the music they produced. Here’s a video that details some other famous people who failed at first:

The final line from the above youtube clip, “life = risk”, is the truth. Optimists turn their gaze away from the big possibility “of crashing and burning” and focus instead on the gleaming trophy of success they hope to attain.

Yet as absolutely vital as optimism is to your overall health and to your ability to bring about positive change in your life, there is such a thing as stupid, naive optimism, an optimism that’s self-destructive.  This false optimism may give you a false sense of security. Have you ever heard of the expression, “Plan for the worst, hope for the best”? It’s harder than it sounds. Many people just do the second part, and optimistically expect to lose weight or to find their dream job without putting concrete steps into action that will make it happen.  The New Orleans politicians knew the levies wouldn’t hold against the sea water in a hurricane, but optimistically thought it couldn’t happen to them.  Likewise, many in the current younger generation assume that a fulfilling, well-paying job and a beautiful home will fall into their laps. After living with high expectations all their lives, they grow up to confront a harsher reality in their twenties. Just google “new generation entitlement” to see what I mean.

Optimism can work against us – an MRI scan showed that optimistic people’s brains lit up when told positive statistics, and barely processed negative ones. In many ways, it makes sense that the brain works this way, otherwise how could we get through our daily lives with mortality staring us in the face? But thinking that disaster won’t happen to you can actually endanger your health and safety! Thinking about the worst that could happen can help you think twice about doing that cliff dive or trying a drug “just this once”.

Martin Seligman, psychologist and author of Authentic Happiness, says that, “The idea that optimism is always good is a caricature. It misses realism, it misses appropriateness, it misses the importance of negative emotion.” A huge financial scandal at the head office of my Church is a great illustration.  This scandal, which turned out to be a 2 million dollar embezzlement of funds that had been earmarked for victims of 9/11, the Beslan massacre and the Armenian earthquake, was reprehensible and yet many were afraid to stand up and demand justice and transparency.  We were told we should “forgive” the perpetrators and “move on”.  Well, in that situation, anger was a most appropriate emotion!  It was the people who were NOT angry that you had to worry about!  And there was one member of the clergy who would just smile and say, “It’s all good” and refuse to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation.  So inappropriate “positive” emotion, if you can call it that, can actually be a sign of complacency, sycophancy and an appalling lack of personal integrity.   When confronted with injustice, tyranny, genocide and other hideous and obvious evils, righteous anger is the appropriate response of a true human being.

However, not all so-called “negative” emotions are not necessarily synonymous with pessimism.  Pessimism is often intertwined with crippling and truly negative emotional states such as self-doubt, shame, guilt, a sense of unworthiness, self-image issues and more.  Whereas stupid optimism can blind you to real danger, “stupid” pessimism is often a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to self-created disastrous outcomes.

Yes, it’s true that no matter how intelligently optimistic you are, you will suffer occasional “reversals” of fortune.  The funny thing is, though, that for those who are intelligently optimistic, these reversals almost always turn out to by huge blessings in disguise.  Hence the wisdom of an ancient Taoist parable where the neighbors of a certain farmer continually pronounce every event in the farmer’s life to be unequivocally “good” or “bad”.   The farmer, though, is a wise man, so when his son breaks a leg he says “maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad”.  Then, when the emperor’s soldiers come by a week later, they find the lad unable to walk and do not draft him into the army.  So what had appeared to be a purely negative event had a very positive outcome.

People who have enjoyed success use pessimism to avoid becoming lazy and overconfident about their situations, and to prepare and motivate themselves.  But on the other hand, optimism can also motivate, by helping you forget about all the things that could go wrong and helping you keep your eyes on the prize. As a 2011 article in Psychology Today put it: “Optimism can buoy us up when things go wrong; deluged by feelings of hopelessness and despair, optimism is the raft we cling to until the skies clear.”

Bottom line?  Both intelligent optimism and intelligent pessimism are positive psychological states and you can use them to improve your daily life now.  All you have to do is discern and distinguish them carefully from their counterfeit equivalents – a naive and stupid optimism and a self-defeating pessimism. In the end, this viewpoint will be much more helpful to you than the simplistic idea that all optimism is “good” and all pessimism is “bad”.

As an exercise, try taking stock of your own internal optimistic and pessimistic states over the next week or so – are you using them wisely or destructively?

Good luck!

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

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