Optimism and Pessimism

Alice Bachini has been thinking about optimism and pessimism recently (here and here). Here are my comments to the first post:

You’re right that it makes sense to assume that things will get better in the long run. But, in the short run, things are a bit trickier.

On one hand, our happiness about a situation is often a function of how well things are going relative to our expectations. So, setting lower expectations might give one a better chance of exceeding them and being happier about the same outcome.

But, on the other hand, we are more likely to solve our own problems if we’re optimistic about our chances of doing so. We’ll probably search more thoroughly and creatively for an answer if we expect to find one soon. Also, I understand that medical patients with high (even unrealistically high) expectations of recovery are more likely to
actually recover than those with lower (even more realistic) expectations.

So, I think it makes sense to be skeptical about short-run success with respect to things that are not under your personal control, and optimistic about those things that are; and optimistic about the long-term future.

I think that this, or something close to it, is generally right and a reasonable approach to take.

But so what? Is optimism something we can just decide to adopt? Can we decide that the best thing to have is optimism-level X and just make it so? Or, is it a deep aspect of our personalities that we cannot really change significantly?

I’m not sure.

I’m a big fan of thinking about things and trying to understand what they are really like, rather than just accepting our emotional reactions. These reactions can be bad and lead us into further error. And, I think I’ve been able to improve how I respond to things. Perhaps my immediate reactions are still similar to what they had been, but I quickly try to get control and guide my reaction towards what I think makes sense. I’m certainly not perfect at this, but I think I’m getting better at it.

So, while we might not be able to completely control our fundamental outlook on things in a way that affects our immediate responses to things, I think we can do a lot to improve our general responses and thinking about them in a way that gives us most of the benefits of a good outlook and mitigates most of the bad effects of a bad outlook.

At least, I’m optimistic about this being the case.


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