The pessimist seems to be at the mercy of reality, whereas the optimist has a massive defense against reality that maintains good cheer in the face of a relentlessly indifferent universe.
Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism
While I like this quote in some ways, I cannot give my full agreement.
On one hand, Seligman makes a convincing case for optimism. In his book, he argues that our explanatory style (a continuum ranging from high optimism to high pessimism) can serve as a protective factor in subjective well-being and physical health. Basically, more optimistic people tend to live longer, more satisfying lives.
The causal arrow is unclear, as Seligman’s studies are correlational. Do optimistic people seek out habits and relationships that enrich and lengthen their lives? Or does adopting an optimistic mindset lead us to pay more attention to our health and relationships? Perhaps it is bi-directional.
Moreover, optimistic people seem more likely to seek out information and solutions than their pessimistic counterparts. For example, an obese optimist who receives grave advice from their doctor may be more likely to adopt healthy eating and exercise routines that slowly shrink them down to a healthy weight. Their optimism fuels a vision of a better future. And as a result, they are more likely to delay present gratification for the promise of future health and well-being.
Pessimists, on the other hand, may parlay concerned advice from a doctor into a defeatist attitude.
“Well, I probably only have a few good years left anyway. Why skip the donut today if I’m going to die tomorrow?”
Pessimists find it more difficult to delay gratification because such delays require a belief in future payoff – a future payoff more fruitful than the temptation at hand. Since pessimists have more negative future forecasts, it makes sense that they would succumb to present-day temptations more than optimists. If the future is going to suck, why bother sacrificing pleasure now?
Seligman argues that optimism is a “cheery defense” against an indifferent universe. In some ways, I see his point.
I don’t really subscribe to laws of attraction, or “the secret” or other woo-woo positive-thinking prescriptive pseudoscience. I don’t believe you can wish away cancer, poverty, or obesity by merely reciting some positive affirmations. Ultimately, the universe does not care how positive your outlook on life is. Sometimes pessimistic people get lucky and optimists reach tragic ends.
But I believe Seligman is describing a more psychological defense. Sure, the universe is indifferent to our existence. But does that mean we need to descend into fatalistic nihilism? Absolutely not. Life can be beautiful and we can still pursue what we ourselves interpret as meaningful. We can stare down the absurd and boldly say,
“Fuck it. I’m going for it anyway.”
When adversity strikes, we need not curse an unfair universe. We have a choice. We can use our optimism to look forward and solutions, rather than wallow and kowtow to an indifferent world.
Optimism can innoculate us against self-sabotage. But it isn’t a panacea. Positive thinking alone is no substitute for a doctor’s diagnosis and treatment options. Affirmations alone will not bring you success. A positive outlook is meaningless if it fails to fuel action.
But optimism can still be a wonderful tool in our positive psychology toolbox. It can keep us happier, healthier, and more resilient as the universe does its darndest to break us down. It can serve as a foundational roadmap to actions that delay gratification in the present in favor of future compound interest.
Positive thinking will not magically bring us wealth or cure our terminal ailments. But when given the choice between looking backward with regret and pity or looking forward with hope and planning, the latter will likely produce better outcomes.
Reality hurts. But it doesn’t have to hurt indefinitely. We don’t need to exacerbate it. We can choose cautious optimism. We can brighten our gloomy outlook while still tempering the sunshine to embrace realism. It takes work, but it is possible. And that daily balancing act alone gives me a reason to move forward with hope and grace.