Can One Be Too Optimistic?
February 11, 2013
“Always look on the bright side of life,” sang Eric Idle in the film, The Life of Brian. It has since become an anthem for optimists who perhaps do not realize it was meant to be sardonic. Knowing those Monty Python guys, might they have meant for us to question if optimism isn’t as good for you as it’s cracked out to be?
Pessimists, the glass-half-empty people, are supposedly at higher risk of heart disease, depression, and a host of other ailments because their immune systems are not optimal. Or so goes the research. No doubt there is common sense behind this argument. Positive people bring about a self-fulfilling prophesy when they act according to their belief. And self-help books of the New Age movement have ran with optimism as the secret of a happy life. Think positive thoughts and only positive things will happen to you, they say.
But hang on a sec, doesn’t optimism also shut down critical thinking? A healthy dose of cynicism is our only defense against scammers and marketers. A mother may advice, “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, say nothing.” Does that mean that if I know Mr. Adobe from Nigeria is a con-man, then I should just keep quiet and not warn my friends? If my landlord is bullying me, I should not complain to the authorities? So clearly, always looking on the bright side is sometimes the foolish option.
Historically, despots have sold a skewed optimism in order to control the masses. If I am denied the right to question my religion ( because I must have faith), to question my culture ( because I must have pride), and to question my government (because I must remain patriotic), then I will never become a fully-formed adult. Personally, I prefer the New Yorker cartoon where a father advices his son: “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, be clever but devastating.”
Which brings me to Mr. George Carlin. He, like many intellectuals, employed negativity rather positively. Persons with high IQ love satire and lampooning. When such people rant it is cathartic and joyful. When listening to such people it is hard to miss the huge overlap between optimism and pessimism.
When I began patient support I imagined I would be in most demand from patients without families. It turns out it’s the opposite. When faced with cancer or any terminal condition, families seem to prefer a state of denial. Particularly in front of the afflicted relative. They somehow think that what the patient needs is to be reassured that everything will work out just fine and dandy. “This little diagnosis will one day become a distant memory.” I quote those words from what was said to me after my heart attack.
This is optimism which is negative for the patient. If you really want to be supportive, be honest, allow him to consider the worst. Go over all of the options. When a person is faced with a shortened lifespan, it would be more comforting for him to know he has planned his departure well. That he has made peace with everyone, his finances and estate are in order, that his canny planning succeeded in making things easy for his loved ones as his illness progressed.
But time and again I witness families saying, “I don’t like to think about such things,” as if being blindly optimistic is a sign of supreme love.
A depression-prone pessimist might be more likely to take his own life, but a chronic optimistic is never far behind. Optimists are risk-takers. They are more likely to risk their lives on thrill sports such as free-fall parachuting or bungee-jumping.
Given that reality is made up of both positive and negative elements, it would be make sense that a balanced approach should be the most realistic. Might there a third, more sane, way then? Is it possible to live as neither an optimistic nor a pessimist?
I have noticed that my plans for the future enter my awareness neither as optimistic nor as pessimistic. It is only when desires tag themselves onto outcomes that the problem begins. If desires bounce up and down and say, yes, that outcome will fulfill us nicely, then the rosy glow of optimism will appear. If, however, the desires bemoan, no, that outcome won’t do us at all, then the the blue mood of pessimism will cloud over.
Here’s the irony: Desires are entirely unnecessary to the planning of the right thing to do. Desires tagging themselves onto outcomes happens because of force of habit. And like any habit it can be reprogrammed. For me the solution is to keep alert the faculty of inquiry at all times. In my opinion a critical indifference of the outcome is the healthiest and most reasonable option.