In The Case of Optimism

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.

Seneca
Seneca was an Ancient Roman philosopher, famous for his work on Stoicism.

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

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22 thoughts on “In The Case of Optimism

  1. As a Classicst (or at least a self-professed one), I know that Seneca’s Stoicism is in conflict with his station as a lavish courier of Nero. Thus, perhaps in reaction to Nero’s abuses of imperial power, Seneca engaged in a conspiracy against him and subsequently killed himself on account of this. Thus, I wonder how compatible this reconciliation of the actual Seneca with his philosophical positions is (for, unfortunately, we have only external narratives about Seneca compared to his various philosophical treatises.

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    • It is true that Seneca was the tutor of Nero, but it was also popular back in the day for philosophers to hold that position, such as Aristotle. It’s debated whether or not Seneca actually took part in the conspiracy to kill Nero, and a good deal of scholarship argues for both. But I believe his ethics still holds up, simply because of his bravery when Nero ordered Seneca to commit suicide in from of his family. Seneca kept the stoic attitude throughout.

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      • I would love to believe that Seneca actually practiced what he preached, but there is also a great deal of literature in the post-Neronian era (Pliny, Statius, Tacitus, et al.) who glorify those who died/committed suicide during the emperorships (?) of certain rulers. Thus, given that Seneca could not have written about his own suicide after the fact, I wonder how much of Seneca’s positions are really applicable to “Seneca’s Positions.” (Though, to be fair, his ethics still speak regardless of his particular time. I wonder only whether he was truly a Stoic or whether he was trying to make Nero a Stoic in a futile way)

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  2. All of Seneca’s complexities aside, humans individually are by nature both since the thing that makes us human is the fact that we can rationalize; cause and effect relationships. Pessimism comes from our experience at failing to rationalize properly and optimism is the reverse. The result of simple cognitive experiences concluding events one way or the other. But I submit to you that this differs with age, hence experience. Young people today are very much concerned about world events seemingly to be near some apocalyptic conclusion, hence a degree of pessimism toward the future. Back in the day I felt the same way. I’ve lived thus far 65 years and I have seen a lot of politics change and world events rise and fall… yet I remain more optimistic than ever toward the future. Why is that? Let’s compare one period of time past. Nothing.. and I mean nothing… going on in today’s world has sent the collective fear of doom than the Cold War of the 50’s and 60’s. The feeling of utter doomsday destruction from a nuclear holocaust between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union was part of everyday life. But let’s forget that for a moment. Just pick one year… 1968-1969. Civil rights riots tearing up most major cities… assassinations of King and Bobby Kennedy… the seemingly endless war in Vietnam (the infamous Tet Offensive showing us that we were not winning the war as we were being told)… body bags… anti-war sentiment against the troops when they came home (none of the “thanks for serving” stuff in those days) total distrust of government… social culture and counter-culture upheavals, hippies, sex, drugs, rock & roll. Trust me. What is happening now in the world fades when compared to past history. Now, the only reason I can say that is because I’ve lived through it… witnessed the historical ramifications since then. I can see both and I can see that history moves on in spite of it all. Back in the day I also thought the world was coming to and end. I see today’s events, and while most certainly important to navigate, are nothing toxic to the future if we stay the course… and keep being optimistic. It takes both pessimism and optimism in moderation to bang out a plan that gets us through… because we are just human. Besides.. one person’s pessimism is another person’s optimism (the inverse need not apply).
    Thus endeth the lesson.

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    • “What is happening now in the world fades when compared to past history.”

      Having shared that experience, I disagree. The energetics of global climate change involve some really large numbers. We destroyed all of Europe and rebuilt it in twenty years – we can’t do that with the forest and species that we are losing. Worse, the enemy is not some outward them, it is us.

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      • When solving a problem at least give me one pessimist. In that way I will feel better that the final solution (my apologies to our Jewish brethren for using that phrase, but I am tired of needless political correctness) is less biased and more objective.
        By the way, Mr. Brian, I didn’t know our discourse on pessimism and optimism was somehow interpreted to be a political interpretation of global warming and its consequences. My remarks were meant to temper those, typically the young, from being pessimistic regarding an apocalyptic future. I was not suggesting in the least that while history may have had moments of more impending doom compared to now, it does not release those of us in the “now” from continuing to solve problems head on, and that takes optimism… and maybe the better word is.. hope?

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        • Words can be used for many purposes. I appreciate dialog that focuses on empowering people in the here and now, and tend to be put off by claims of authority. Ideas and facts speak for themselves, and when they are disputed, everyone has an opportunity to learn.

          One of the challenges of interpreting the writings of Seneca, for example, is that nuances in the original language are often lost in translation. Below I elaborated some of the possibilities for “optimism” that seemed to be implied in the original post.

          In common usage, there are many words of moral discourse that suffer from ambiguous and conflicting usage. When in my project of reclamation I eventually got around to “hope”, I ended up with “a connection to a future in which love is at work for you.” While it contradicts Einstein’s model of linear causality, it fits my experience, and I have become an optimism through my exploration of the attendant possibilities for spiritual growth.

          I do believe that the problems of the future will require different solutions. I struggled, in raising my sons, with the problem of getting them to discard the conventions with the hope that they might grasp those solutions. I focus on the young because I have found that those that hold power in the present have a vested interest in sustaining convention.

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  3. Optimism – attitude/choice/condition?

    I think attitude.

    Is there a case to still be an optimist?

    Yes of course there. Even amidst the war, the prevalent senselessness, the poverty, the misery, the bigotry.
    There is, of course there is.

    You spoke about optimism – individual and collective.

    Let’s talk about focused optimism –
    Optimism moves hand in hand with other internal attitudes, characteristics, features. To lose hope in the wake of things outside your control isn’t the most optimal way to go about life right? A clarity on where you stand in the world, things which are your in control, beyond your control, things you can change, perhaps might help one focus optimism to drive optimized outcomes.

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  4. Loved your rationale and support. You missed a statement that you might wish to consider adding.
    Roy Clark of Yeehaw fame once described a formula for choosing our path when faced with drastically opposed POV. “You might should choose to be somewhere between lust and watchin’ TV.”

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  5. There’s a link between emotion and reason here that I am having trouble disentangling. Is optimism important for the emotional impetus that it provides to our investment of thought in problem solving? Or is it a simple assertion of will (reason enslaved to emotion)?

    Or is it itself a habit of thinking that serves emotional stability? Maybe to think “I see a problem. All problems have solutions. Let’s find one!”

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  6. Both optimism and pessimism put expectations on the future and affect your attitude and behavior in the present. If you hope to get that job, for instance, it will show in your demeanor, as will the expectation of rejection. And when you make predictions, you become invested in being right, even if you are predicting a future you don’t want.

    “Be here now” is timeless wisdom from mystics and saints from around the world. The point of power is in the present. If you want to improve world conditions, you will take symbolic steps in the present to further your hopes. Something as mundane as shopping with reusable bags demonstrates a commitment to planetary health. Eye contact and smiling at strangers on the street can have far reaching effects in terms of generating a spirit of friendliness, so lacking in today’s environment.

    Every problem contains its own solution, but focusing on the problems feeds the problem. To shift focus from problems to solutions, just one step sideways, could do wonders to alleviate the growing despair about the future of humanity and the planet we call home.

    I, too, am a sexagenarian who laments the loss of laughter in a society that doesn’t appreciate what it has, and what it is fast destroying.

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  7. I think optimism isn’t necessarily believing in something better or a positive outcome despite evidence to the contrary. It can also be a tendency to notice positive things more than negative things, or to at least try to balance out the bombardment of negative with positive. In this way, it can sometimes be more realistic than pessimism, since the latter tends to focus only on negative things that are happening. Of course, like most seeming dichotomies, it’s more of a context-dependent spectrum than an actual binary.

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  8. You should read the book “The Optimist: One Man’s Search for the Brighter Side of Life” by Laurence Shorter. It’s my favourite book in the entire world. He interviews people from all walks of life to get their perspective on optimism. It’s soo good.

    “True optimism, I realised, is about accepting the world as it is,
    letting go of our obsession with the future, and
    setting oneself free with that knowledge.”

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  9. There is a difference between optimism and wishful thinking. What gets called optimism these days is very often wishful or magical thinking, i.e., if I just think happy thoughts without taking any action, something good will happen. Optimism has to be informed by action. If you are more religious or spiritual like me, you understand that God places struggle in your life to test you so that you can grow and learn, not just to punish you.

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  10. It seems my optimism always spikes in the presence of severe pessimism. If no one else is looking on the bright side, I feel obliged to do so. Possibly because pessimism very often leads to someone deciding not to do anything about a poor situation, whereas optimism makes a person face the possibility that things aren’t all that bad, forcing themselves to do something to change it.

    I guess what I am trying to get at is, optimism is powerful enough to turn things around, and pessimism is powerful enough to make things worse. We should all be cautious with the way we think for it can determine the tone of our lives.

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