Monday, July 09, 2012

Optimism is Overrated

A while back, one of my blogging friends, Beth over at Blue Ridge Blue Collar Girl, wrote a piece about what she called "dork optimism"  - always sunny and hopeful. She took the description from a show she had been watching.

In a comment, I said, "optimism is overrated." Beth in a comment on my blog wanted to know why I thought that. She wrote:
  "I've been thinking about something you wrote in your last comment on my blog and I'm very curious about just what you meant by it.  I'm asking here because I'm not sure what your email is and I'm pretty shy anyway about writing folks directly.  You said that you thought optimism is over-rated.  So why do you think that and what do you think is the alternative to it?  I'm not asking this to put you on the spot---I sincerely want to know because I think you do think deeply about things like I do, and I'm very interested in how you came to feel this."

I don't have Beth's email, either, and this is a long answer, so this blog entry is my response.
First, I had to consider my own statement. Do I really believe optimism is overrated? Yes. I do. For many reasons.
Optimism has been described as seeing the glass half-full. Its opposite is pessimism, which sees the glass as half empty.
However, I think the opposite of optimism these days is not pessimism but realism. Optimism has moved so far into unreality, thanks to the media and religion, that it has become dangerous. This actually has a name, which I just learned as I thought about Beth's question (and oddly enough, it came up on AOL this morning on its front page). It's called the optimism bias.

This means that being too optimistic can keep you from seeing things clearly. It can keep you from seeking medical attention, saving money for the future, and making plans. Pessimism can do the same thing. Too much of either trait is bad, in other words.

I tend to be a realist who leans toward pessimism sometimes. I admit that freely. I do not see the glass as half full. Nor do I see it as half empty. I see it as 2 ounces of water in a 4-ounce glass. That's the reality of it, isn't it? It's just water.
I am not talking about a reality as something we create, as one of our former presidents (or maybe it was his secretary of defense) said. I'm talking about truth. Honest, unvarnished truth. That water is wet. Hot is hot. Red is red. One plus one equals two. What someone says is what they say. That a policy is bad or good because it's a bad or a good policy, not because someone thinks it is. These things can be figured out. But that requires thinking grounded in reality, not in hope and faith. Just because you put something in place and hope it works doesn't mean that it is actually going to.

In thinking about this, I have written wonderful words and offered great examples in my mind, but I didn't write any of it down. Now that I'm trying to write it down, I cannot think of what I was recalling. I knew this was going to happen but I was enjoying the thinking process so I didn't hunt up an ink pen. Pessimistically, I knew I would forget a lot of it. Optimistically, I knew I'd remember some of it. The reality is what I write here is going to include some of what I feared I would forget and it will include some new material, too. Three different outlooks. One blog entry.

Too much optimism is the reason why many things are wrong with this country. For example, are you one of those folks who applaud the cuts to social programs? This is likely because you think you'll never need it. You're optimistic that you'll never lose your job or ever have a medical problem that will cause you to go bankrupt. So yeah, get the deadbeats off the dole, right? And then when you do need that money - when you're one of those deadbeats - the money is not going to be there and you're going to have to sleep in your car. And you're still going to think that things will be better tomorrow.
That is optimism causing great social calamity and chaos. That is optimism causing problems for hundreds of thousands of people, today. That is optimism being highly overrated because people do not see the reality of the situation.
Because the reality is that there are hundreds of thousands of people out of work, or living on wages that are not enough for a nice life, and these folks need to be enrolled in SNAP even if they do have a car, in order to be sure they have enough to eat.
The reality is what needs to be changed and addressed. Making it worse for others because you believe it will never happen to you is just ... well, wrong.
Too much optimism leads to stagnation. If you believe that things will be better tomorrow, always, and never address the reasons why things are not quite what you want today, how will you ever be moved to change? Let's say you need more money. Maybe you need a different job. But if you're always hoping for a raise tomorrow, to address that need, when will you start looking for a new position, or upgrading your skills? Maybe never.
Being grounded in reality is what causes forward movement, not optimism. I'm not saying optimism is a bad thing. Of course it isn't. It's good to hope, to dream, to expect better things. But if you do not address the realities - if you don't take an umbrella with you because you're sure it's not going to rain - at some point, you're going to get wet.
Isn't it better to take the umbrella along, just in case? (I always carry one in my car.)
The other side of this current climate of optimism that I find dismaying is that it is yet another way we set ourselves apart. We're constantly creating "others" - that person is too sad to be around, or too pessimistic. Too unlike me. Wrong religion, wrong car, wrong clothes, too fat, too skinny. When a society is constantly uplifting one trait over another, then it is negating those people.
Who wants to be negated all the time? And why would we do that? What is morally right about that kind of attitude?
I think being optimistic is being pushed as "good" in the same way that being extroverted is lauded as being the best way to be. Our society reveres extroversion and eschews introversion. Well, we would be lost without introverts (and yes, I am one), whether they're optimistic introverts or not. Einstein and Bill Gates are introverts, just to name two who have influenced our society. As a society we act like there is something wrong with introverts (just like we now act like there is something wrong with pessimists and realists). None of these - introversion, pessimism, realism - are personality disorders or anything to be ashamed of. They're just the differences that people have, and to hold one up over the other, to proclaim one better than the other, is just wrong.
I also see this optimism thing as a part of the Law of Attraction hoopla that is being touted in religions - well-established and otherwise. This came to the fore with that terrible book The Secret and it continues on. This type of thinking was around in the early 20th century, too, but fell out of favor as people came to their senses and began living in reality again (though it apparently took a great depression and a world war to knock people back to their senses). However, we've grown very ignorant once more and so this type of wishcraft is now front and center.
In the Law of Attraction, if you have enough faith, it will come to you. While Jesus says people with money will not get to heaven (Mark 10:25), these days religions tout the opposite: it is the most righteous who are rich - because they have great faith and God wants them to be wealthy as their just reward. They're simply trying to cover their own butts while they turn away from their societal obligations to take care of the poor and destitute. And if they can make you think the same thing, so much the better.
In other words, if you're poor, it's because you don't have enough faith. Do you really believe that? I sure don't. If a car runs through your house and injures you while you're asleep in your bed, you somehow wished that upon yourself. How do you like that kind of thinking? Think that's grounded in reality? Do you really think you wish the bad things in your life upon yourself?
Of course you don't. Life is full of strange events, unfortunate happenings. Sometimes things just are. Sometimes you get sick. Sometimes you are happy. Sometimes someone falls asleep at the wheel. Sometimes things really do turn out like you hope and your optimism is rewarded. Sometimes things turn out badly, too, and your optimism is blown to bits.
We just went through a bad week here locally with major power outages. Being a realist, I am always prepared for such an event. We have a generator, gasoline on hand, and enough food to last us for 10 days, even if that means we'll be eating Vienna Sausages on that last day. This is not a survivalist mentality; this is the reality of life in a rural area where the lights go out sometimes for long periods. But a lot of people do not prepare.
Last week when the power was out, even when the electric company was saying it would be a week before power would be restored, people didn't believe what the power company said. They were sure the lights would be back on. Just another hour, and everything would be fine.
Only it wasn't. Their optimism was not rewarded, and I saw a lot of people starting to freak out after about four days without power. They were unprepared. Reality hit them upside the head. Hard.
So yeah, I think optimism is overrated. Expect tomorrow to be a beautiful day, but buy a raincoat. Otherwise you're going to catch a cold and go into pneumonia. Then you'll lose your job because you can't work. Then you'll lose your house, and you'll end up living under a bridge.
Live in the real world. Open your eyes, please. See the good and the bad and plan your life accordingly. That is the alternative to omnipresent optimism that can cause stagnation. Be realistic, but hope.
Thank you for reading.


  1. Whether the glass is half full or half empty depends on whether you're pouring or drinking.

  2. I am an optimistic yet realistic person. To me. optimism is happiness and pessimism usually reeks of dwelling on past, unhappy events in our lives. I really don't think much deeper about it than that. There are too many good things in life to be caught up in the unhappiness that can overwhelm us if we choose to let it. Buying that raincoat just means that I am prepared, sort of like having a generator around in case the power goes out for a week.

  3. good post...i like what miss becky wrote too!

  4. Wow, Anita...thank you for such a thorough response to my question! I was realistically optimistic that you'd answer it, but you have surpassed my expectations. :-)

    I have so much to say about what you wrote, Anita, that I really wish I lived close so we could get together and talk about it. But I don't want to hijack your blog with a ridiculously long comment, so I'll probably write my own response post once I get through my Thirty Days post commitment.

    But I did want to say that I think that, even though a lot of folks would say that the character Sue Heck that I wrote about (my fellow "dork optimist") is not realistic and in in denial because she keeps trying out for things in high school that the world says she's not suited to and keeps believing that things are going to get better even though her family is always on the edge financially, I see her as telling the world by her almost defiant optimism that she will absolutely NOT be defined by their ideas of her limitations. Just because all the "popular" kids constantly send her the message that she is not okay, she says to them, by putting herself out there that she will not let them define her. And that she has the right to try for things that the world says are not for her. When I think about it, I realize maybe there's some of that in my starting a blog. I was really intimidated by the thought because most bloggers tend to be college-educated, very articulate people and I wondered if I'd really fit in. But I felt like maybe I had something to say so I did practice a sort of defiant optimism by putting myself out here, even though I didn't quite feel I belonged. Still don't feel I do, really, but I keep writing, just like Sue keeps pressing forward, making a place for herself in the universe.

    Oh dear...sorry to be so lengthy. And I'm not even sure I got across what I wanted to say. Clearly, I do need to write a post. But I really do appreciate your taking the time to think about this, Anita. I think our thought processes are very similar. People always tell me I think too much. And they're probably right. But I think it's better than not thinking enough. :-)

  5. We think alike in general. I've described myself as an optimistic pessimist. I've also been spreading the word about introverts. I just means they need to be alone to recharge, unlike extroverts who can recharge by being with others. I do believe in something along the lines of "law of attraction," that we attract what we think about but I also think it has to go together with action.

    I think this topic is a good one, especially as it applies to our cultural, societal bias towards optimism and aversion to pessimism/realism and that this piece could easily be adapted into a commentary for the Roanoke Times or elsewhere.

    I loved the paragraph/analogy about you not writing down your thoughts and knowing you would forget and trusting you would remember at the same time.

  6. What a terrific commentary - so honest and clearly thought through and articulately expressed. So much of it chimes with what I think and feel on the subject, which is very complicated in some ways, since optimism is definitely both a personality trait and a carefully devised and deployed means of manipulating people by clever folks such a PR men (and women) and spin doctors and so on. I am going to go away and think about this - or think about it again. I remember almost the first poem I ever wrote, back when I was about 13 or so, was called "Hope", and it wasn't very impressed with its topic! Thanks for triggering so many interesting thoughts!

  7. Anita, I thought about what you wrote a bit more and read it again, and what I realized is that you and I, in our writing, were talking about entirely different kinds of optimism. I think you were addressing optimism that is born of a sense of entitlement---for example, someone thinking that because they are Christians, God's gonna make them rich or because they're rich, they're immune to the travails of the plebeians. In my post, I was addressing more the kind of sturdy, steady optimism that, even though one has had hard times, they persist in believing that through hard work and a belief in themselves, they have the power to succeed. Of course, it doesn't always work out that way (and no one knows that more than me, believe me), but having that hope, I think, is very important. It actually helps keep you moving forward. You mentioned that too much optimism can lead to stagnation. I understand what you're saying, but when you're going through hardship, losing hope can lead to the worst kind of stagnation (again, no one know that more than I do). Anyway, I know you probably weren't addressing me specifically in your post, but I did want to make that distinction.

    And, for the record, I despise optimism born of a sense of entitlement. Jesus actually often chastised the rich.


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