Essay

Optimism, Pessimism, and Beyond

By Duff McDuffee on April 1st, 2011

When should we be optimistic? When is it smarter to be pessimistic? When should we have high expectations and when should we lower our expectations, or drop our expectations altogether?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about optimism and pessimism, or so-called “positive” and “negative” thinking, and in which contexts each is appropriate. In addition, there are methods of dealing with reality that are neither—more just observing things as they are—and these approaches seem really useful as well. The following article contains some of my recent thoughts and advice to myself on this topic. Perhaps you will find it valuable as well—or add your thoughts in the comments if you disagree!

Optimism

See the best in people, specifically look for the deeper positive intent underlying every behavior, feeling, and thought (especially those you don’t like or are harmful). At the same time, assume that most people aren’t usually connected with these deeper intentions so we often act in manipulative, selfish, and irresponsible ways—some more than others. Know that a small proportion of the population consistently acts sociopathically and/or narcissistically and it’s ok to completely cut people off who behave like this (and in fact, that’s the feedback they most need if they are to change anyhow). Learn to quickly identify people like this, and notice how most people are not psychopaths and therefore basically trustworthy. Give these people the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. And even when people act in harmful ways, look for the deeper positive intent behind them.

See the best in yourself, especially look for the deeper positive intentions underlying all of your behaviors, feelings, and thoughts (especially your unwanted or harmful ones). Core Transformation is especially helpful for this. Accurately note when your behavior harms others, then be optimistic about your potential for change and really go for it. Take solace in the fact that many before you have successfully changed the very same things you struggle with.

Be optimistic about your individual potential and your desired outcomes/goals. Given sufficient patience, persistence, and precision (intelligence) you can indeed achieve many things. Be pessimistic about how hard it is likely to be to do so in proportion to how far away you are from reaching your goal, or how close your goal is to your genetic limits. Expect a large number of obstacles that will prevent you from reaching your potential and your desired outcomes. But go for it anyway, little by little, courageously.

Be optimistic about other individuals’ potentials, as well as the collective human potential working together for positive purposes. Know that it may take lifetimes to achieve significant collective change, but that many changes are very much doable and worth fighting for, and participating in a positive purpose larger than yourself feels wonderful.

Expect that people will treat you and each other with respect and human dignity, and make these expectations public. People are more likely to do so if these expectations are made public. But also back these expectations up with the rule of law or appropriate force or else risk them being empty words.

Pessimism

Expect most things to be difficult, painful, annoying, and for everything that can to go wrong—especially circumstances outside of your control. Then be pleasantly surprised if things aren’t quite that bad (or well-prepared if they are). This is the classic recipe for happiness from the Stoics. Take time each morning to imagine everything in your day going horribly wrong, then you are almost certain to have a better day than you expected, and the little problems will seem appropriately trivial. This is helpful for cutting through our human tendencies towards¬†complaining and entitlement, and even a recipe for feeling gratitude.

Expect little annoyances, for things to break, for everyone you know to die someday. Expect there to be traffic every day when you drive to work, for the store to run out of your favorite foods. Expect to have physical aches and pains. Be very pessimistic about all products and services and all advertising, marketing, and branding. Expect customer service people to be mean or inauthentically cheerful, and to be put on hold for a really long time. Plan for the project to take 3-5 times longer than projected and cost much more too. Expect that sometime in your life you will find yourself in a physical fight. Take reasonable steps to deal with these likely realities instead of denying them or hoping they won’t happen, or else accept their inevitability. You’ll be much happier as a result.

Expect movies/concerts/etc. to be pretty bad, but then enjoy them with an open mind, stepping into the experience and allowing yourself to become absorbed. You are most likely to really enjoy movies, etc. from this perspective and be less critical while watching them if you get your criticism out first. If you have high expectations, you end up denying your doubts only to have them fight back aggressively once released in order to strike an inner balance.

At the same time, don’t make things more difficult than they have to be. Having acknowledged that difficulty and suffering is an inevitable part of life, relax as much as possible in the midst of difficulty, and do the difficult things in the easiest, most joyful possible manner.

Beyond

As things are happening, observe them as they are without distortion. When appropriate, observe from multiple perspectives for a more complete picture. Aligning Perceptual Positions, Vipassana/insight meditation, the scientific method, etc. are useful here. Look for your biases and correct for them when possible so you can be more objective. Read scientific journal articles and seek to understand them. Learn to recognize a logical argument from an illogical one.

Drop repeating, stuck fears/phobias/paranoia/anxiety/anger/despair/etc. into the hara, notice their qualities with Vipassana, refocus on something like the breath, do Core Transformation with them, let go of thoughts altogether, or use some other technique of your choice to transform them. Don’t exaggerate. Challenge extreme irrational thoughts—use tools from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy like a simple 1-10 scale to get precision and perspective. The purpose of pessimism and lowering one’s expectations is for human happiness, not increasing one’s suffering!

Conversely, do the same with the “demons of elation”—any superstitious optimism (if I believe good things will happen, they will, and vice versa), mania, or irrational exuberance. Transform these distortions so you can see things more clearly.

Use your imagination or ask the help of others to come up with numerous possibilities for future events so you can expect and prepare (mentally or otherwise) for a multiplicity of scenarios. But only put resources towards those possibilities that are likely or else you risk over-preparing. Make sure you aren’t acting out of a paranoid anxiety or irrational exuberance when planning for a future possibility. Trust that things will either work out, or they won’t, but either way you will ultimately be ok.

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36 Responses to “Optimism, Pessimism, and Beyond”

  1. Ian Surelight says:

    great article, thanks!

  2. 32000days says:

    I couldn't agree more. I think this post deserves more attention because it's practical advice that is also right! And very balanced – neither ultra-positive Law of Attraction stuff, and not ultra-negative resigned cynicism.

    I often roll with the "demons of elation" and think interesting things like "God has unlimited love for me and wants be to be infinitely happy right now", but mostly that's for fun. (I'm not exactly an orthodox believer) It's not a mantra that I consider necessary for my well being, it's just something that spontaneously seems to occur in thought now and then.

    My recent post I hate happiness – the backlash against positivity

  3. Naomi Niles says:

    How very much do I love that video you posted!

    It's so easy to forget that moderation has it's own attributes. Everyone focuses on "passion", "epicness", "rockstardom" and whatever manic thing else, when it could be just a matter of dealing with natural ebbs and flows and managing our own expectations.

    I'm at the point in life now where I'm tired of pushing so hard. When I feel motivated and energetic, I use that time to get things done. But, when I feel tired, I'm trying to learn to take the time to rest and chill-out too. Nothing quite like thrashing around in angst feeling guilty because you're not doing what you think you should be doing.

    Anyway, I just wanted to leave a note to say that I appreciated the balance here. Thanks!
    My recent post Rethinking My Blogging Efforts

    • Glad you liked the post.

      Moderation is where it's at. No more pushing so hard for me either.

      "I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny, invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man's pride."
      — William James

  4. Yea, elation is one of the more tricky mental states because our culture basically equates elation with enlightenment. But if we pay more attention, we can easily see that what goes up, must come down in terms of inflated self-esteem or mood!

  5. Yes, I think optimism isn't so much about only seeing the good side, it's about choosing to focus on it…you can be a realist, see both sides, but then instead of dwelling on the downsides, focus on the most hopeful and forward-moving elements of the situation!
    My recent post undefined

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