The Downsides of Optimism

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It makes sense in a difficult situation to look for positive aspects or to find a positive response. It’s certainly unlikely that we’ll find them if we don’t look for them. But is there a cost to optimism as well?

An Extreme Case

I have a friend, whom I’ll call ‘Toni’, dying of an auto-immune condition. Toni may live for years, or die soon; the doctors may be able to put the condition into remission, or not. She is in pain all the time. She is on very strong drugs that block it some of the time. Incredibly, she remains an optimist.

I don’t know how she remains optimistic, and I’m certain that I wouldn’t in the same situation. I’m sure this is a triumph of spirit; it also has a downside. When Toni first got a firm diagnosis — which took a while, as it is a rare condition — she thought she would either die or get her old life back. She felt confident of handling either one.

What is likely to be the case is that Toni will be living with chronic ill-health. She hadn’t counted on this and so hadn’t prepared for it. She had put her normal life ‘on hold’. And then the normal things she had put on hold started ending: jobs, relationships, hobbies, all became impossible to leave on hold. The awful truth is that Toni won’t get her old life back, and she could have prepared in some ways for this. She feels that it would have made it easier if she had. She didn’t prepare because she was optimistic — she didn’t consider the worst case scenario.

This is an extreme case, which thankfully few of us will ever have to deal with.

The More Usual

For myself I am an optimist — it does not seem to be much use being anything else. — Winston Churchill, speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet, London, November 9, 1954

I am not trying to denigrate optimism. Churchill’s quote makes good sense to me: it makes sense in a difficult situation to look for positive aspects or to find a positive response. It’s certainly unlikely that we’ll find them if we don’t look for them.

I think optimism is a worthwhile principle to operate from most of the time.

All Those Clouds

Every cloud has a silver lining — proverb

One problem I have with this proverb is that there are so many clouds (situations in our lives), and it claims to know about them all. It can become a pre-judgement on any situation: there must be something positive in any situation. It can also be an incitement to examine a difficult situation and see if there is anything positive that we can find.

The biggest problem I have with this optimistic approach to situations is when it is applied insensitively to others in difficulties. To be told to ‘cheer up’, ‘get over it’, ‘look on the bright side’ and so on is pretty awful. Where I have seen this most frequently is people who have been traumatised by a relationship breakup being told that, “There are plenty more fish in the sea”.

Insensitivity to Suffering

Why do people respond insensitively to others’ suffering? My guess is that there are a couple of major reasons. One is that they are caught off guard and surprised. The other is that they feel they are in danger of being overwhelmed by the others’ suffering or are scared of it — the insensitivity is to guard themselves.

Optimism can also lead us to be insensitivity to our own suffering. When I think of this the phrase I hear is, “Oh well, I just have to look on the bright side I guess” (said with a resigned tone).

We may be insensitive to others sometimes; in my experience, we are more often insensitive to ourselves. We can be scared of our own sadness or hurt. It can feel like we’ll die if we really feel how bad we feel. And so we develop ways to distract or numb ourselves. I think this can make sense in the short-term (who wants to feel worse than they have to?) but can have unfortunate consequences if it becomes a habit.

If we habitually suppress or ignore our feelings, then our relationships will likely be impoverished. If you didn’t learn to do this growing up then I think you are a rare and fortunate person — almost everyone I know did learn to suppress their feelings or find ways to distract themselves from them. Some feelings are more welcomed than others (anger is usually regarded as bad), of course, and some situations aren’t hospitable to feelings either (school rooms, with their rigid rows of desks and even more rigid timetables, for instance).

Learning

Usually it is as adults that we learn to be at home with our feelings once again. I’ve learned that (even though I’m male) it’s OK to feel sad — and even to express it. I’ve learned that there are ways to express anger that don’t damage me, anyone else or the furniture. I’ve learned that my feelings are a valuable part of me.

I learned this in small, safe steps. There were breakthroughs — the fruit of very well prepared ground. It was a process of feeling my feelings a little, finding out that this was OK; then doing it again and again. This sounds laborious, and it was in some ways, but each time I felt a little better — so it wasn’t like I was steeling myself to do something unpleasant, it was a process of feeling better and better.

The Downsides of Optimism

So the downsides of optimism are that we may not prepare adequately for bad situations, and we may block awareness of some of our feelings.

I think this may be an unusual take on optimism. I would like to hear your views on the usefulness (or otherwise) of optimism. Comments from pessimists are most welcome. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

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