It seems like the best way to tell if someone is an optimist, is to observe how much they value the idea of optimism. The phrase is popular “I’m not being a pessimist, I’m being a realist.” As if the two are closer together that optimism is. This could reflect the pessimistic attitudes of the culture, or it could just be a sign of one’s age.
Optimism is a curious thing. First of all I’d like to define optimism. It’s no doubt that it is more made up of a chemical makeup of the brain, but it’s also a state of one’s condition. We can accept it as “The feeling of good outcome, even despite evidence to the contrary.” Of course the word ‘good’ being dependent on the person. This definition leaves open to a few types of optimism.
The first type of optimism can be a limited case. This is typically when the individual reassures himself with phrases like “Maybe I will get that new job,” or “that cancer is benign,” or even “Yes, that girl does like me.” These cases or all instances of a specific outcome that brings some kind of good fortune to the person and has little effect other people in society.
The second type being the more broad case of optimism. This is with phrases like “Education can be reformed,” and “My candidate will be elected president,” or even “One day there will be a better society than ours.” So the first examples are all for the individual, the second examples are for people as a whole. Usually if a person is susceptible to one type of optimism they will be susceptible to the other, but this isn’t always the case.
Many people make the case that optimism is not grounded in reality, but I believe the case can be made for both. But first, what are the implications of both optimism and pessimism on a person? For instance the stoic school of philosophy has some interesting things to say about hope and optimism. Part of the doctrine of stoicism is the limiting of one’s desires, which includes the desires for the future. As Seneca stated:
Limiting one’s desires actually helps to cure one of fear. ‘Cease to hope … and you will cease to fear.’ … Widely different [as fear and hope] are, the two of them march in unison like a prisoner and the escort he is handcuffed to. Fear keeps pace with hope … both belong to a mind in suspense, to a mind in a state of anxiety through looking into the future. Both are mainly due to projecting our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present.
For Seneca and the stoics, hope was like climbing a mountain, and the higher you climb the larger the fall will eventually be. Optimism obviously implies a good deal of hope, the two go hand in hand. This is a curious view, but also a useful one. The higher we get our hopes up, the more we will be let down! It is not necessarily to expect the worst, but to simply adapt one’self to the current condition.
This tactic is useful when wishing to avoid any sort of misery, but I do believe that a small amount of optimism is healthy. Simply on the grounds that people have a certain capacity for occupations that are higher than themselves. Optimism is the feeling that drives people to action, and since people will themselves to be apart of a larger cause, optimism can provide some good to society and individuals. For instance, people that have occupied themselves with politics and activism. Political activism is a cause that is higher than simply the individual, and if there were no shred of hope, there would be no point of being active. As long as the hope is of course within reason and regulation. Of course those that are active can still feel that let down after the work never saw fruition, but that’s the price of taking up a cause higher than one’self.
In contrast, Pessimism has its benefits as well. An observation I’ve noticed is that people start out naturally optimistic, and only later in life do they learn true pessimism. Many people claim that is only because when you are young you haven’t experienced as much of the world, therefore you are an optimist. This is a simplistic claim at its heart, seeing how so many activists are leaders are able to remain optimistic. What interests me is the switch between optimism to pessimism. I claim, not that it is because pessimism is more in line with the way the world works, but simply it grows from the deregulation of optimism. In their youth their optimism grew boundless, and when they experienced that fatal let down it left them as a pessimist. This can be a result of both kinds of optimism, either a single time or being repeatedly disappointed.
The first kind of optimism, that of being limited and short term, can lead to disappointment. But even worse, the optimism of hope and eternity, that can lead to disillusion.
But now finally, is there actually a case to still be an optimist? Reading the news, it would appear there would not be. It is all doom and gloom, and as I and many others believe, more hard times are ahead of us. But this doesn’t exactly negate all prospect of being an optimist. As stated before, part of being an optimist is hope despite evidence to the contrary. And while the near future may hold disaster, it is the feeling that in the distant future people may have better lives than those of today.
It would appear that we were setup for failure. If both optimism and pessimism can end in disillusion, what are we to do. Seneca is correct when he means the best we can do is adapt ourselves to the present. At the very least, this we can always do. It can be debated whether optimism is a choice or a condition, but this isn’t as important. What is most important is the way we conduct ourselves when being either an optimist or pessimist.
Related: An excerpt from the movie “Monty Python’s The Life of Brian“