Brief Thoughts On Optimism and Pessimism

I have received emails from several readers concerning my post ‘The Dark Side Of Life’.  Their responses have left me thinking that I should write a short post regarding my views on optimism and pessimism.

So what sorts of things tell whether a person is optimistic or pessimistic?  Here are some areas to consider:

1. Predictions and potential for change
Does the person expect the best or the worst outcomes in future situations?  Can bad things be changed or is the situation hopeless?  Is the external world in control, or do they have the power to change events?

2. Focus of attention
What sorts of things does this person talk and think about?  Is there a preoccupation with the negative, the positive? Does the person strike some sort of balance?

3.  Attributions of intentions
When they deal with other people, how do they think of other people’s intentions?  For example, if you’re in the office and someone snaps at you, do you think that person is just mean, or do you think they’re probably just having a bad day, giving them the benefit of the doubt?

4. Valuation
Do you believe your self/others are useless? Do you believe your self/others are loveable and valuable?

There really isn’t a right or wrong answer to all of this, but either extreme is dangerous.  Excessive pessimism can lead to depression and inactivity.  Excessive optimism can leave people unprepared, unsafe, and ill equipped for the future.  The answer is to live somewhere in the middle.

When it comes to confidence, keep in mind that people are the most over-confident in areas where they’re the least competent.  It takes competence to recognize competence.  Our ignorance in what we don’t know sustains confidence in our own abilities.

A pessimist would more easily see that people generally think too highly of themselves.  Most all women consider themselves strong, most men consider themselves good-looking, and everyone thinks their children are above-average.  We tend to accept responsibility for good deeds and not for bad deeds.  The same goes for success and failures.  Studies show that we all think we’re more ethical than our average counterpart and that we’re all better at our jobs than the average peer.  We all easily believe flattery and are easily impressed with psychologist tests which make us look good.  We tend to think our groups (our school, our country, our race, our children, even our pets) are superior.  In situations where people tend to behave less than admirably, we overestimate how desirably we would act.  We over-estimate the commonality of our foibles and underestimate the commonality of our strengths.  Also people with excessive self-esteem are more likely to become aggressive when confronted as compared to someone with low self-esteem.  Conceited, self-important individuals turn nasty toward those who puncture their bubbles of self-love.

As for judging other people’s intentions, always keep the situation in mind.  Even good people can become nasty if put in a bad enough situation.  We live in an overly individualistic culture which under-emphasizes environmental factors.

Optimists make better dreamers.  They have the confidence to pursue their dreams and try to make them a reality.  This leads them to see possibilities that a pessimist would miss.  But that comes with a cost.  Unrealistic optimists will ignore serious problems, refrain from taking proper safety precautions, and their emotional situations are often dealt with through denial, nonchalance, and blaming others.

Pessimism also has benefits.  For example, they are better at recognizing dangers and foreseeing potential problems in a plan.  Also, since they have lower expectations, they are less often disappointed.  However, they also tend to have higher rates of depression, higher blood pressure, and are perpetual party poopers.

Both optimism and pessimism are mental strategies for dealing with an unpredictable world.  Maybe being a realistic optimist is the best approach?  However, who defines what’s realistic?  If the greatest visionaries of the past had been “realistic”, they never would have tried.  There’s no definitive answer to this.

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