Practicing Realistic Optimism

Not all optimism is healthy.  It’s only really helpful if it is grounded in reality.  So, today I’m not talking about crazy, wild-eyed Pollyanna optimism. And let me make it abundantly clear, I think positive thinking is positively dangerous! 

In contrast, today I’m talking about realistic optimism: a faith in the future that accepts the brutal facts of the present, but always focuses on what’s helpfully possible.   We’re interested here in how to take more responsibility for our emotions and spend more of our lives actually enjoying the ride.

So first we must acknowledge the real world. We experience that world through our minds, via our mindset.  We make sense through filters, at times so strong, it’s as if we will live in a virtual reality!

It follows that human freedom lies in the changes we can make to our experience by changing either the world where we can, but mostly by changing our mindset.  This is not absolute freedom, but it’s the best we can hope for.

So, what is this mindset?  We can approach this by asking two questions: 

  1. The first question is what am I attending to? What am I selecting to focus on from the infinite array of sensory stimuli?
  2. The second question is how am I paying attention? What’s the manner or style of my attention?

We’ll explore these two questions in turn, but, the first and most important implication of this is that there are choices we can make that change our life experience. 

One way to understand this is through the simple equation to live by: R + M = E,  or Reality plus Mindset equals Experience. 

Let’s take an everyday example: traffic incidents.  Someone cuts in on you without indicating.  And there’s no wave to say thanks either!  You hit the brakes and your heart rate jumps.  You are angry at them.  You swear out loud at them, along the lines of you give me the ‘proverbials’! 

But perhaps the very next day virtually the same thing happens, and you have the initial anxiety but it’s like water off a duck’s back.  You maintain your chilled mood.  How can the same reality lead to such different outcomes?  Obviously, the answer is different mindsets! 

If we make others unliterally responsible for our emotions, we effectively airbrush the M – our Mindset – from the equation.  In essence it’s ‘you’ve caused my upset’!  We don’t say ‘I’ve appraised your incursion into my lane in such a way that I am now angry and stressed’!

No, we focus on them for as long as they are visible or sometimes even longer! They are what we are paying attention to.  And we attend to them with fantasies of revenge, with negative generalizations about Volvo drivers, young people, aggressive male drivers etc. – this is the how or style of our attention.  In short, we make them completely responsible for our negative emotion.  Not much wisdom or freedom in that I‘m afraid!

The rest of this talk will examine how we can regain some control over our experience no matter what reality confronts us.

What we shouldn’t do is focus on things that concern us, but which are outside our circle of influence. Our experience then will be one of helplessness and hopelessness. As long as we focus our attention there, our emotions will drag us down, making us despondent. 

The Covid pandemic provides endless examples of getting this wrong!  One of the features of the pandemic is the widespread experience of languishing.  There are many good reasons for this but an important one is the way we focus on things we cannot influence. 

We may spend too long watching mainstream media and too long doom scrolling through social media.  What should we be doing?  Get the statistics once a day from a government website and then shift attention to other things that we can do something about.  Like exercising, or focusing on our work, or telling our beloved how much we love them.

The other way we get this wrong is the manner of our attention.  As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it: “People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them”.  So, in our upset are we overgeneralizing? Are we driven by confirmation bias?  Are we rigid in our opinions?  Are we succumbing to collective delusions such as conspiracy theories that the Covid virus doesn’t exist or that the vaccinations are more dangerous than the virus? 

One very powerful way to edit or improve our mindset is to catch ourselves in the act of pessimism.  The way we explain the world to ourselves has profound impacts on our wellbeing.  Psychologist Martin Seligman showed through decades of empirical work that people who orient to the world with realistic optimism are healthier, catch less diseases, live longer, are more successful and are happier in relationship compared to realistic pessimists.

He uncovered three styles of thought, the three Ps’ of Optimism and Pessimism.  For example, if something bad happens like missing out on at a job we went for, we may make it more Permanent than it is: by using language such as ‘I’ll never get a job’ and ‘this always happens’.  Or we might make it more Pervasive by seeing it a part of ‘everything’s going wrong’ or ‘nothing’s going right’.  Or we might make it Personal by automatically blaming ourselves.  By contrast, we can see it as temporary or ‘just now’; as specific or ‘just this’ and as impersonal, examining objectively the higher caliber of the other successful candidate.

Another powerful tool in building realistic optimism is the two conditions test.  Next time you experience any negative emotion – you shouldn’t have to wait too long! –  interrogate your thinking with two questions:

  1. First ask yourself if your thinking is realistic. As with Seligman’s Three Ps, is it an exaggeration or overgeneralization or just probably not entirely true?  If it is not realistic, you should drop the upset.
  2. If it is realistic, you aren’t out of the woods yet. Ask if your thinking is helpful. Is it wise or constructive?  Not many upsets survive this second question answered honestly. 

Sadly, this often reveals that people would rather be right than happy.  But now knowing this, see if you can rather be happy than right.  See if you can focus on realities you can influence with an outlook that is both realistic and helpful.  That’s of course if you want to be happy!