Is it Rational to be Optimistic or Pessimistic?

An optimist is someone who looks at the bright side of life and expects good things to happen. A ‘cock-eyed’ optimist is one who believes, against all the odds, that everything will turn out all right in the end. Against this, the pessimist looks at the dark side of life and expects bad things to happen. A ‘dyed in the wool’ pessimist is one who believes that everything will turn out badly in the end.

On the face of it, pessimists seems to have sober reason on their side. For the pessimist, we have to be realistic, and the fact is that everything will eventually come crashing down. Entropy takes care of the end of things, and that end is increasingly chaotic. All systems move from a more to a less ordered state, until finally, they cease to exist. Our lives are like this. We are little anti-entropy machines, and our living bodies try to keep back the encroaching disintegration. In this they are successful for awhile, but, in the end, our bodies succumb to the forces of decay and finally move to the disordered state we call death. For the pessimist, the world is a disaster waiting to happen, and the optimist is simply living in an illusion.

Some systematic differences have been pointed out between the two approaches to life. First is the old saw about whether the bottle of wine is half full or half empty. The truth is that the bottle is both half full and half empty, and it is entirely up to the person whether to be happy or sad about this. It is the individual’s choice to be happy having half a bottle left, or sad that it is half gone.

Another difference between them is that the pessimist sees negative outcomes as the norm, while the optimist sees positive outcomes as the norm. The result is that when an obstacle arises, the optimist sees it as a temporary and local problem that can be overcome. The pessimist sees a problem or obstacle as what is to be expected, and getting a good result as the exception. It might be argued that the pessimist has the right in this, because, if one predicts a bad result that does not materialize, one is pleasantly surprised, whereas, if the bad result occurs, one takes it as only what is to be expected and is therefore not so affected by it as an optimist would be.

Despite this, there is currently much discussion about the value of optimism as an operational principle. It is claimed that the optimistic person is happier than the pessimist, travels more hopefully, is healthier and lives longer. In addition, the optimist is said to be more resilient and better able to cope with life’s setbacks.

It is true that bad things can happen and often do, but the opposite is also true. The optimist does not have to be ‘cock-eyed’. It is possible to be a realist and a moderate optimist at the same time. Optimism is more about maintaining a positive attitude than anything else. Pessimists do not pursue difficult projects because they are sure that they will fail before starting. It is hard to get moving on a project when what is before one’s mind are all the things that might, and probably will, go wrong. An optimist has a ‘can do’ approach that concentrates more on success than failure, while recognizing the problems more as opportunities to make progress than as crippling setbacks.

The sort of optimism that pessimists decry is really a silly kind of unjustified belief that the future will bring whatever one hopes will come to pass. However, another kind of optimism is not a matter of belief but of attitude. It is really more about having faith in one’s own competence than a matter of belief. It is the feeling that one will be able to cope with whatever happens as it comes along.

Of course, there will come a time when one will not be able to cope with some disaster or another. However, the optimist does not let that stop him or her from acting to prevent it or to pursue some other course of action, even while knowing that eventually everything comes to nothing.

My conclusion, therefore, is that the rational choice is for optimism, despite the fact that nothing lasts and all accomplishments eventually come to nothing. I would summarize my position as long term pessimism combined with short term optimism. And since our lives are short, it is best, from a practical point of view, to cultivate optimism as a modus operandi for our lives. To expect disaster and failure as the norm may protect one from being too disappointed when things go wrong, but that is no way to live. It is always possible to look at the world pessimistically or optimistically. The choice is ours.

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