A Simple Comment on Optimism and Pessimism

It is obvious that different individuals have different and sometimes widely varying predispositions to taking certain perspectives. Such perspectives have given rise to categorizations of people as 'Optimists' and 'Pessimists'; it is almost a given that optimism is considered a crucial deciding factor in the success, happiness and even longevity. Overweening optimism, however, often blinkers a person to the pitfalls of life. The straightforward answer that optimism is always better than pessimism needs greater thought.

We know optimists have that alluring, magnetic quality about them. More extroverted than not, they are best characterized as people who seek out the best in things. Their perspective is perpetually bright and colorful, giving them the ability to see things opportunistically. Notwithstanding the many (sometimes spurious) scientific claims that optimists are healthier, happier and more successful, it is probably true that optimists have an advantage. Because they see the bright side of things, they are more easily motivated. Being less likely to be demoralized, they recover from defeat faster, get to their feet quicker and are back to work with greater gusto than before. Volumes upon volumes of books have been written about the advantages of optimism. Apparently, one must be optimistic to be entrepreneurial, to make friends, to become successful...
In the rush to capitalize on the possible benefits a simple change of mindset can bring, we forget that today's society suffers from a very peculiar ailment. A person in a developing country is now more socially mobile than at any other time in human history; now, even in developing countries around the world, in Asia or Africa, far greater swathes of people are waking up in the morning feeling more confident in themselves, their culture and their personal choices. Barring certain social proclivities, confidence is not in short supply. People are confident enough to challenge the institution of marriage's exclusion of gays in America, confident enough to overthrow authoritarian regimes in the Arab states and confident enough to challenge established histories in Singapore.

Yet it is unbridled optimism that sends us stumbling into great mistakes. Taken to its extreme, optimism metamorphoses into idealism, sweeping away calculated decisions for wishful thinking. It is why people continue to gamble even after they've lost, why people speculate that the stock market will rise and rise to dizzying heights, before it promptly crashes to rock bottom.

God forbid, is it better to be a Pessimist? Seeing things only as the sum of their potential losses is hardly inspiring. In fact, it is hugely demoralizing. They are more concerned with consequences, unintended or otherwise. They are not easily driven to act for fear of failure, and defeat takes a far greater toll upon their egos and sense of self-worth. Why, then, would anyone want to be pessimistic? Perhaps it is an expression of weakness and neuroticism. To be constantly beleaguered by negativity and thoughts of failure is no way to live, and only inclines people to actual failure; after all, one is what one thinks.

By now it should be understood that the perfect optimist or pessimist is a human caricature, existing more in our imagination than in reality. Everyone has these different perspectives in differing proportions. We should learn, however, to temper ourselves in the best way, so that we can see bright colors as well as dark shadows, so that we do not fall afoul of the consequences of being too extreme in our optimism or pessimism.

The perfect optimist sees no downside. It’s why bull markets keep rising and why housing bubbles grow to immense, untenable proportions. Yet there is a limit to all things, even capital, and what goes up must come down. The housing bubble burst in the late 2000s, creating a worldwide financial panic that touched everyone involved in the global financial system, and some who had nothing to do with it. We must temper our soaring expectations with some measure of realism so that we may be balanced in our decisions. By consciously pursuing the merits of balance, we might hope to steer our lives in better directions rather than become infected by unconstrained desire or extreme depression. The best balance is probably in the vein of 'optimistic, but not overly so, and with a sprinkle of pessimism'; to quote Thomas Hobbes, eminent 17th century philosopher, respice finem, 'that is to say, in all your actions, look often upon what you would have, as the thing that directs all your thoughts in the way to attain it.' Optimism allows us to keep our goals in mind and to follow a certain plan to its logical conclusion with confidence. Yet this confidence must not be so domineering as to blind us to the ever-present potential dangers, of which we must needs some pessimistic streak to alert us to.

Frederick Yorck



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