How To Be An Optimist

Would you rather have an optimistic doctor? Good question. You’d rather they had reason to be optimistic.

If, by optimistic you mean they think everything will work out fine without consulting objective evidence, then no. Would you want an optimistic soldier? If they think the campaign is going swimmingly so reframe their situation as fine so become unaware and “relaxed” despite being suicide bombed, then no. Would you desire an optimistic politician who chooses the less profitable choice for the economy, because they are ‘hopeful’ trends will reverse again soon? No.

There are many virtues to being a pessimist such as, on the average, better work competence (perfectionists are pessimistic) and a more accurate view of the world (life is dismal compared to what it could be). “Depressive realism” describes studies’ findings where people who call themselves pessimists outperform optimists in predicting outcomes. (Note: not personal outcomes.) A greater point is this, though: pessimists and optimists are not a different species like canines and felines; the identifies are tendencies which people contest and argue over. Pessimists can be optimistic, optimists can be pessimistic. It depends on the situation; no binaries in my blog.

That said asking still occurs: How can I be optimistic? How can I be happier? How can I be an optimist? How can I be less of a pessimist?

And if you were going to choose—and what alternatives are there in our shared vocabulary?—being an optimist would be the better choice. A healthy mind would choose rose-tinted spectacles rather than glaring light. Optimists tend to report higher wellbeing, and even if that is delusion—favouring positive answers can become self-fulfilling in sensation. The line between delusion and truth is blurred. Making yourself smile has feedback to the brain which causes it to think you are ‘genuinely’ smiling and releases those lovely brain chemicals; the same for making oneself laugh; putting on a brave face or a smile, then, is sound advice. As Don Quixote espoused, to “be a knight act like a knight” for long enough.

Pessimists report lower wellbeing (surprise, surprise), and at the end of the bell-curve are more likely to feel suicidal. Why? Research by psychologist Martin Seligman, found in his book Learned Optimism, says it can be as basic as not living up to their too high expectations. The script of their life has gone unfulfilled; where optimists would re-edit, pessimists hold-on to the unachieved potential, dreams, ambitions, and failures. Getting real, can get you down. In psychologese the life script or narrative is called “explanatory style”. How people vary in explaining positively or negatively. Some research, such as depressives more frequent use of “me, “myself”, and “I” in analysed email and messaging implies self-centred rather than other-centred thinking can induce a bad dialogue with oneself (focusing on the happiness of others is a great means to become happier all-round). Primarily though, that dialogue with oneself in the hundreds of words which echo in our head each minute can affect—really, effect—wellbeing. Seligman pointed out the obvious for us.

Pessimists see the world as bad, because they narrate any bad event as personal, permanent, and pervasive:

“I’m a moron; I always make grammar mistakes and always will; no one can help me and everyone thinks bad of me”.

Optimists see the world as good, because they narrate any bad event as impersonal, temporary, and rare:

“I’m good at this I just haven’t had the time; once this is done it won’t be a real problem; when I’ve reviewed I’ll see things better”.

Indeed studies where therapists re-framed students’ bad performance as not their stupidity but their unfamiliarity did far better next semester. Just “I’m not good at this” to “I just need to learn the ropes” made the difference.

Practising this dialogue with oneself predicts optimism. Even advising oneself as you would advise a friend can work – Stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius could tell you that – because instead of fraught emotions it becomes an objective, puzzlelike problem. And compassion works better than optimism anyway.

As a pessimistic so pessimistic as to believe in its genetic predisposition, I need to learn (and relearn time again) this lesson and address my self more often with more optimism, fairness, compassion and so forth. Doing so for your self, can only be for the better (if you’re not at work, that is).

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