Balancing Optimism and Pessimism

As far as I can remember, I have always been a pessimist, but I’m trying to be more optimistic now. After all, I constantly hear that optimists are happier, healthier, and live longer than pessimists. When I say that I’m trying to be more positive, I don’t mean that everything is indiscriminately rainbows and sunshine. Rather, I make a distinction between situations where it helps to be positive and ones where it doesn’t help.

I recently read this article, which describes how engaging in positive fantasies may actually diminish one’s chance of success. Instead of dismissing positive thinking entirely, I was inspired to sort out when positive thinking is useful to me, and when I think it’s pointless.

Back in high school when I was applying to colleges, I decided that the more optimistic you are about future outcomes, the more disappointed you will end up if things didn’t turn out the way you wanted. I used that to justify my pessimism regarding admissions, as a way to prepare myself for disappointment. It worked. 😛

I don’t believe in thinking positively about the distant future. By “distant future” I mean any point in the future that is vague, which could be three months from now, as soon as next week, or even sooner. I avoid using statements such as “Everything will work out in the end” because 1) we don’t know the future and 2) it gives a false sense of assurance, which, as stated in the article, may lead people to not put in the effort that is necessary for the desired outcome. What is certain about the future, though, is that the situation will have to change at some point, whether it’s for better or for worse. (The unemployed recent college graduate cannot live in his parents’ basement forever. Some possible alternatives are that he gets a job, or goes to graduate school, or gets kicked out by his parents, or the house collapses from a natural disaster, etc.) Unexpected things do happen and are capable of changing our lives drastically.
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When it comes to thinking about the future, it’s important to be objective. The problem is, many people are not objective. I know students who study for hours every day, but still stress out and think they’ll do poorly on the upcoming exam, only to end up getting the highest score in the class. I’m not saying that those students shouldn’t study so diligently, but that they don’t have to torture themselves in the process. The flip side is being optimistic while lacking what it takes to achieve the result. There are people who are so unrealistically optimistic that they try (or force their children to try) to do things that they are clearly not qualified for, which only leads to disappointment. (Unfortunately for the the children, the repeated rejections lead to diminished confidence.)

If it’s the immediate future and you are adequately prepared, then be optimistic. For example, it’s the moment before your interview, and you’ve already rehearsed and done your homework. The distinction between this and the distant future is that you are right about to execute the plan that you’ve thoughtfully made. It doesn’t really matter which stage of a project you are in, as long as you already have a concrete plan and are not merely in dreamland. The plan does not have to be foolproof, but it has to exist so you can give it a try. It’s important to be positive now because if you think it won’t work, why would you even bother? When I have ideas for jewelry, I’m often not sure that they will turn out the way I intended, but I still gather my materials and go forth to test the design. It also helps to believe that you are capable of finding another solution in case the original plan fails.

I do think it’s important to think positively about the present. Instead of only focusing on the negative aspects of a situation, look for the good in things. This is known as positive reframing. For example, last Friday the bus I was on arrived late so I couldn’t cross the street in time and saw the bus I wanted to transfer to drive away. This meant I’d have to wait another half hour. I was annoyed, but remembered that we passed by a collision. When I realized I didn’t have the worst commute that morning, I no longer felt annoyed.

Confidence and optimism

I’ve heard people say that optimism leads to confidence. In a sense the two feed into each other. Confidence is built by experience. If I’m pessimistic about the outcome, then I won’t even bother trying. On the other hand, if I am optimistic, I am more likely to try, and the more I try, the more practice I get, making it more likely I’ll succeed, which leads to more confidence. Another positive and realistic option is to think of each try as an opportunity to practice. Even if you don’t reach your goal this time, you gain more experience that could help you attain it in the future.

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4 thoughts on “Balancing Optimism and Pessimism

  1. It’s not necessary to be a pollyanna — but you can influence outcomes by your thoughts — if you think negatively about the outcomes of applications, you can think yourself in to mistakes that will cause negative results. The same is true of positive thinking. There’s a book called The Power of Positive Thinking that might be helpful.

  2. This is why I do my “balance posts” – where I write out every negative thought I have and then follow it with a list of positive things. I try to list as many positive things as negative things, and sometimes I really have to search – but the idea is I’m trying to train myself to be more realistic instead of getting bogged down in negativity. I don’t believe in “positive fantasizing” – only recognizing the positives that are already there, or trying to see a previously negative thing in a more positive light. So while I won’t go around saying over and over “I’m going to win a million dollars!”, I’ll make an effort to say “Hey, I got 10 extra bucks today that I wasn’t expecting, and that’s awesome.”

    • That’s the same idea as cognitive-behavioral therapy, in which you recognize the cognitive distortion in your thinking, and then try to counter it with a more realistic thought. It has helped with my depression. As you described, being grateful also helps.

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