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Wise optimism

By Matthieu Ricard on July 09, 2009

When hearing a door creak, the optimist thinks it's opening and the pessimist thinks it's closing.

For an optimist, it makes no sense to lose hope. We can always do better, limit the damage, find an alternative solution, rebuild what has been destroyed, take the current situation as a starting point, and use every present moment to advance, appreciate, act, and cultivate inner peace. The optimist does not give up quickly. Strengthened by the hope of success, he perseveres and succeeds more often than the pessimist, especially in adverse conditions. The pessimist has a tendency to back away from difficulties, sink into resignation or turn to temporary distractions that will not solve her problems. The pessimist sees a threat in every new thing and anticipates catastrophe.

Psychologists have long believed that mildly depressive people are ‟realistic” in their outlook. The pessimist would tend to go around with his eyes wide open and to assess situations more lucidly than the optimist, whereas the optimist would be an incurably naïve dreamer. It so happens that this is not true. Further studies have shown that the pessimist's objective, detached and wary judgment is inadequate. When it's a question not of taking a some tests in the lab, but of real situations drawn from daily life, the optimist's approach is in fact more realistic and pragmatic than that of the pessimist.

Many studies show that optimists do better on exams, in their chosen profession and in their relationships, live longer and in better health, enjoy a better chance of surviving post-operative shock, and are less prone to depression and suicide. Psychologists describe pessimism as an ‟explanatory style” for the world that engenders ‟acquired powerlessness.”

If pessimism and suffering were as immutable as our fingerprints, it would be more sensitive to avoid trumpeting the benefits of happiness and optimism. But if optimism is a way of looking at life and happiness a condition that can be cultivated, one might as well get down to work without further griping or dithering.

As the French philosopher Alain has written: ‟How marvelous human society would be if everyone added his own wood to the fire instead of crying over the ashes!”
(to be continued)