On Optimism vs. and/or Pessimism

Apr 23

op•ti•mism
1. a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.
2. the belief that good ultimately predominates over evil in the world.
3. the belief that goodness pervades reality.
4. the doctrine that the existing world is the best of all possible worlds.

pes•si•mism
1. the tendency to see, anticipate, or emphasize only bad or undesirable outcomes, results, conditions, problems, etc.
2. the doctrine that the existing world is the worst of all possible worlds, or that all things naturally tend to evil.
3. the belief that the evil and pain in the world are not compensated for by goodness and happiness.

After some research and good old fashioned introspection, I’ve determined I’m both. Firmly. And neither. At least not wholly.

As with most things, there is a great tension at play that shapes my work and interaction with people. These are the environments where I spend most of my time, and as such they’re the proving ground for which side of world view I’m operating from. It’s a tricky line to walk—much of optimism in the above definitions seems overly naive and downright delusional to me, but I also don’t want to be known as the guy who only sees and comments on the worst the world has to offer. I’m looking for some middle ground here.

I think that balance as a general principle is a waste of time. To balance you have to be completely aware of the two extremes, the ‘weight’ of each, and of the absolute center on any issue. I find continuously that I am just not that smart.
Ben Pasley

Trying to find balance between optimism and pessimism is a seemingly attainable goal (given that we have two rigidly defined extremes), but it still feels like a waste of mental energy, energy that could be better spent on greater things. In the moment, I want to be more concerned with what I need to perceive about a situation in order to accomplish a task or finish a project. If that requires adopting a stance that others might label pessimistic, I need to be OK with that, even if that perception isn’t in keeping with what I see my world view as.

I’m guessing this will all be more difficult that I imagine.

2 Comments

  1. Greatly articulated point, Joshua. I know that in my life I have gotten caught in the what are people thinking about me mind-trap. Am I perceived as a pessimist? Am I perceived as an optimist? It’s only been recently that I’ve started to just say, “I don’t care. I am me and that will have to due in this moment, right now”.

    I agree with you 100% when you say, “…I want to be more concerned with what I need to perceive about a situation in order to accomplish a task or finish a project. If that requires adopting a stance that others might label pessimistic, I need to be OK with that…”

  2. Mom

    Balance used to be defined as that position when two kids managed to get the teeter toter–for one glorious moment in time–still–on the horizontal. Since then, it has taken on more of gratingly “you must achieve it or die” quality that somewhat destroys the journey in getting there–if one indeed can.

    As to OPTIMISM: There is nothing wrong in being more disposed to looking on the bright side of things or expecting a good outcome–finding the good in people when it is difficult; knowing that there can be sometimes be a good result later from sad or undesirable circumstances; always believing the best will occur no matter what–is not a bad way to live if you have put in the work and done the best such that the outcome has a chance to be the good you expect.

    A strong Christian-based belief system does indeed support that good triumphs over evil in the end. But to suppose that goodness pervades all and that this world is the best that it CAN be is not supported by the evidence that each of us is the best that WE can possibly be. This is the only world we have; therefore it is by definition “the best of all possible worlds,” I suppose.

    Regarding PESSIMISM: By the definition stated above, one holding these beliefs would be considered pathologically ill and in need of mental health treatment.

    All that said, as one who has been accused of being a pessimist, when what I have defined myself as being was a REALIST, I hold that this is indeed the middle ground, and that it is as Joshua states, and as I have previously defined: one needs “to be OK with that.” One has to both observe, evaluate or assess, then plan, and implement based on the situation at hand. This is REALISM.

    Sometimes one has to plan for what MIGHT be the worst–this could be labeled pessimism, I suppose. But to anticipate and try to prevent the worst from happening by taking precautions is not sitting by and just expecting the worst to happen. Knowing that something WILL happen because it is evil and because the world and everything in it is evil is pessimism. Taking precautions because one is thinking of safety is smart and sensible and is REALISM.

    Conversely, we just sometimes know or believe that stuff will just work out for the best even when we don’t know why. Sometimes we feel good about the world and everything and everybody in it, and nothing can shake our OPTIMISM about life or anything else. This can come from spirituality, from our confidence in our ability or hard work, from relationships, etc. There are people who live this way by habit because it works for them, and generally, they are super folks to be around because it is contagious.

    They exhibit REALISM too, however. They know bad stuff happens, they just choose how they will approach the result when it happens. If their project isn’t accepted, they move on to the next one as they learn from what went wrong or what didn’t; they look at it as a learning experience, not the end of the world as they know it. If they are grieved, they look to friends and support systems and experience the sadness for what it is, not as an affront on their right to existence.

    There is a middle ground between the two; we find it every day, in each problem, in each encounter. How we approach the without from within determines where we sit on the teeter toter.

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