Is optimism one of those emotions that run on a spectrum? That is, does it run from mildly optimistic to bullish? Our optimism fluctuates from hour to hour and day to day.
Most of the time, I tend to be a realist, not an optimist nor a pessimist. Being realistic is being in between being pessimistic and optimistic. My average mental attitude is realistic leaning towards optimism.
My friend Jonathan uses a cooking metaphor. He says pessimism is salt, optimism is sugar, realism is the absence of both. Jonathan says that lately, there is too much salt in the dish of his life. He prefers having just enough salt for added flavor. Too much salt or too much sugar spoils the dish. I like my friend’s analogies.
I once heard a discussion about pessimism and optimism expressed in terms of opportunity. Some of us visualize opportunity as something to compete in. That view believes we must rush in to grab opportunity before someone else snatches it away. The other view sees opportunity existing everywhere with plenty for everyone. I wonder if these ways of thinking lead to the extremes of hoarding or to over-sharing. Are these habits symptoms of extreme pessimism and and over-optimism?
A popular way of conceptualizing pessimism and optimism is to compare them to fear and hope. In recent times, we have seen how easy it is to invoke fear. Leaders who seek to control the masses conjure up scapegoats as easy targets. Extremism is fear-based. Meantime other leaders exploit hope. They employ pie-in-the-sky, magical thinking as an effective strategy to make themselves wealthy and powerful. I’ve gotten caught in the traps laid by both types of leaders. Having been burned by both has led to me striving to be skeptical and realistic.
In real life, we have cynicism, fatalism, and lethargy representing pessimism; with credulity, free will, and excitement representing optimism. Don’t we feel all of these at different times? Keeping tabs on our attitudes and beliefs is much of what mindfulness enables. Maintaining awareness and some modicum of control over the degrees of pessimism and optimism helps us live more effectively.
In my opinion, getting stuck in too much negative thinking or becoming blinded by over-optimism are distracting. In my mind’s eye, being a realist who’s sort of optimistic is the way to go.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes singer-songwriter, Harry Nilsson. “I do believe that most men live lives of quiet desperation. For despair, optimism is the only practical solution. Hope is practical. Because eliminate that and it’s pretty scary. Hope at least gives you the option of living.”