Optimism and Pessimism

By Jim Selman | Bio

Here we are at the beginning of another new year. All the “Happy New Year” greetings are fading and we all seem to be digging in for the coming months.  We seem to ebb and flow with a kind of seasonal ‘mood swing’ and now, in the middle of winter, are beginning to get down to business. In general, most of us start a new year being optimistic—filled with resolution(s), ready to put the mistakes from 2009 behind us and eager to take on the world or ourselves or whatever it is we think needs to happen for 2010 to be the ‘best year ever’. The fact is the world is in pretty much the same place it was before the holidays: we just took a break from all of our ‘earnestness’, planning and efforts to survive for a few weeks.

Being pessimistic or optimistic is an attitude grounded in some prediction of the future. It is a mood and is always accompanied by some ‘story’ of why we think things are going to be better or worse. We create our own pessimism and optimism like we do all moods—by projecting our past forward onto our future, believing our predictions, and then organizing our lives accordingly.

Pessimism is easier to hold on to than optimism, and is usually safer (since there is usually more evidence for the negatives in life than the positives). When we are pessimistic, we mostly don’t have to be responsible. All we have to do is complain, blame and piss on anyone who is an optimist or is trying to make a difference.

Cynics are committed pessimists who don’t allow for possibilities. They are working hard all the time to argue why nothing will change and everything is going to “hell in a handbasket”. Most of us don’t like to hang around cynics (unless we’re one of them), in part because we cannot argue with them.

Optimists are usually naïve. They see something positive in situations that are basically negative. This has to be the reason the stock market keeps going up long after the experts are pretty clear that we’re betting on ‘hot air’ and have themselves moved onto other things. Optimism feels better than pessimism because no one likes to think that the future will be worse than the past.

The problem with optimism is that it keeps reminding us of the negative. It is like ‘positive thinking’. We always have to have something negative about which we can ‘think positive’: this makes for a lot of work, given how much negative stuff there is to contemplate. However, optimism can be something more than just a prediction about the future or an assessment of life.

Optimism can be a ‘way of being’, a context, a relationship with life that we create for ourselves. It doesn’t require something to be either negative or positive. As a way of being, it can include some uncharacteristically dark days. It is a mood we create when we declare ourselves ‘in life’.

When in college, I made a pledge to myself: “I want to look at life through ‘rose-colored glasses’ because it allows me to observe the world as an expression of my commitments and not as some reporter keeping score on how the game is going.” I still am an optimist. That is who I choose to be and the way I am freely choosing to see the world.

To choose optimism requires we take responsibility for how we see the world. It requires we also break our automatic habit of assuming the world is the way we see it. The world is always an interpretation. When we commit ourselves to an interpretation that can offer possibility and the promise of a better future, then we have taken the first step toward empowering ourselves to create that world.  Hopefully, it can be a world that works for everyone.
Let’s have 2010 be a year we can all look back upon as ‘the best ever’…by  starting it with choosing an optimistic interpretation of the world.

© 2010 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.