I think of optimism as a denial of reality. Both in it’s modern pop psych sense and in it’s original philosophical sense.
The original philosophy was that We are living in the best possible world. Clearly evidence abounds that this not true. But since it was a religious viewpoint it didn’t have to be factual, it only had to explain why the world sucked and to make people think that the world sucking was the best possible thing. The odd part is that it is so easy to subvert into making your current choice be OK. So one could do horrible thing or not help in horrible situations and just say – this is the best possible choice because this is the best possible world.
Today though, optimists are really just positive thinkers and so don’t say that this is the best possible world, but they use a variation of it. They look at the happy side of life in all situations. But in order to do that, one has to ignore the bad things. Or one has to manipulate one’s view of a situation to change a negative thing into a positive thing. So an optimist drops a glass of red wine and says “one less glass to wash!” “I need to drink less, this was fortunate.” How pleasant and positive. But it ignores the red wine stain on the white carpet. The dangerous broken glass that needs to cleaned up. And if you need to drink less – that is a problem that requires an active solution, not an accidental chance.
When I worked in Corporate America, this positivity thing was toxic. They would implement a change and if anyone expressed a concern or pointed out a problem, they were labeled negative. Don’t Be A Complainer! Be Positive about Change! As though that would fix things. But it quite naturally did not. Instead it taught people to avoid pointing out issues. As a result changes were often littered with problematic outcomes that everyone worked around without complaining to anyone who could fix it. More work but better for your career. Looking at problems and addressing them fixes it. Pretending they don’t exist does not.
That corporate positivity is an offshoot of the pop-psychobabble that pretends that if people think positively everything will turn up roses. Affirmations of positive things! Project your best future! Imagine your best life and it will appear! It’s not quite the same thing as positivity, but it takes that same delusional manipulation of reality as its platform and just magnifies it 10 fold by including magical thinking.
I think we need to look at life complexly. I recognize and don’t think that we should ignore the positive aspects of life. And I think being able to see the silver lining is good. But it is a silver lining in a storm. It’s not the entirety of the situation.
Optimism and Pessimism are equally pointless projections. There is value in Reality. In looking at the entire situation and acknowledging all of it. In the long run it means positive change. Because there is no point in changing if this is the best of all possible worlds or if all I do is focus on the positive and ignore the negative.
It’s important to see that same situation can be viewed from different perspectives, as with half empty / half full glass. Because we need to be aware that all we are doing is changing our own viewpoint, not the situation. The amount of water in the glass remains fixed. But being able to see it both ways makes you aware of the flaw of perspective. If you focus only on how full it is, you may not recognize that you will need more water. If you focus on how empty it is you may panic and start hoarding water. If you realize that there are two perspectives you can set that aside and look for larger context. How much water do I have and how much do I need and what actions do I need to take?
Reality is Complicated. Simplification doesn’t help you. Positivity / Optimism is simplification.
7 thoughts on “Optimism is Irrational”
What you say is true, but sometimes hope is all people have. If you take that away, then it does not leave much reason to fight and survive. I also believe we can be self-fulfilling prophets. If we get out of bed and say it is going to be a great day, then we have a better chance of making it so. Yet, with all of that said, it can also be said “hope is not a strategy.” So, set what is called a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) and plan how to get there. *
Note: BHAG comes from one of my favorite business books called “Built to Last.”
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I don’t think hope is optimism. Hope is the recognition of the current conditions and seeing the possibility of change for the better. Optimism is getting out of bed saying today will be a good day and thinking that is what makes today a good day. When in fact today is a good and or bad day for a huge variety of reasons. I think the self fulfilling prophesy is true only when you give the delusion power to choose only one perspective therefore excluding others.
Setting a goal and acting to get there is a good strategy. But it’s not optimism. It’s more pragmatic reality. Particularly if you plan how to manage obstacles to your goal.
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I blame Oprah for encouraging this movement. Quite honestly, it’s way easier to be grateful when you have a cook and a maid and a gardener and a chauffeur… and more money than she can ever spend. One time I saw her magazine and one of her favourite things was a pair of $600.00 pajamas. It hard to be grateful when you can’t afford to buy food or when you are sick or if, like me, you have depression. Getting out of bed every day and going to work and caring for the sick and vulnerable takes all of me. Coming up with a graditude list just makes me feel sad because I’ve already given so much.
Thank you so much for you comment on my blog the other day. Appreciated more than words can say. How about this? I’m grateful for bloggers who don’t even know me, reaching out and taking the time to let me know I’m not alone.
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Yeah. I hear you. It is so much easier to say be positive, be grateful when your life is easy. But even then – it’s still just one part of a bigger fucking whole.
And when the entire world is the struggle just to take the next step, “keep positive thoughts” is just fucking useless drivel people use to pretend they are offering support.
I posted this here and on my tumblr and people in both places seem sort of put out by the idea that optimism isn’t a panacea. Or at least those who don’t slog through the pits of despair are put out. The rest totally get it. It’s just not that simple.
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Comparison with probable worlds is a fiction–whether done to make this world look like best of all possible worlds or worst of all possible worlds. Only an agency which has simultaneous access to all worlds can truly compare and say what relative quality of experience this world has to offer.
That said: nothing stops anyone from imagining and using analogies to learn or while time away. Prison house/dream analogy is used by mystics to help us understand transitory nature of our experiences. If this is a prison and a system we must be here to learn some lessons and if this is a dream–we can’t remain asleep forever and so on–these analogies help explore true nature of reality/mind/self.
Optimistic quotes/mantras are supposed to work as sound therapy. Even a simple ‘F’ word can alter your thinking for a significant amount of time depending on the tone used by the person who utters it. I mean that is not a simple word. There have been people who did extensive work on nature of sounds for many centuries and generations and some sounds can be used to manipulate nature of their reality. It’s like altering your self-talk and making it positive with sustained effort. It’s obviously as simple or as difficult as making a tea or create a rocket-engine–there need to be proper causes to create proper effect.
I think there is a great deal of value to realistic self talk. To being aware of how your internal dialog is going and stopping it when it is lying to you.
However, I am not a fan of positive self talk that uses phrases and idea that don’t connect to the reality of my life. Telling myself I am wonder woman doesn’t work because I know I have few if any of her abilities. Telling myself that I am a hard worker and that I am smart works because I can connect those things to actual experiences I have. In fact if I don’t associate my positive thoughts with an experience it’s just words that my brain effortlessly twists into negative self talk.
I think being self aware and realistic is valuable. And I think that is what gets lost in positivity today. We focus on pretty simple answers instead of focusing the complexity and hard paths. Life is complex. The path forward is easy for no one.
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I agree and I’ve been dubbed cynical by people but our thoughts keep changing and you can look back in retrospect from childhood to puberty to adult life they kept changing–so our thoughts can be altered.
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