Kinda Depends on the Situation
By Jeff Salter
I can’t say that I’m all that “upbeat” typically… so people wouldn’t likely view me as an optimist. But I think it’s easy for someone who’s a practical realist to be confused as a pessimist… simply because they’re aware of limitations and/or dangers (and take steps to ameliorate them). And that’s what I consider myself: a practical realist. I want to be prepared for the situations I’m about to enter, so I think about what I might need.
Could it be too cold in that theater? I’ll bring a jacket.
Will the prices for candy be triple (or more) what they cost at the grocery? I’ll bring my own candy.
Might my indigestion act up again? I’ll bring a few anti-acid tablets in my pocket.
Is there rain in the forecast for after the movie? I’ll bring an umbrella.
Some people categorize all of those practical considerations as signs of a pessimist. I disagree. The fact that I bring the jacket and carry the umbrella does not mean I expect it to be cold inside and rainy outside… but merely because I don’t wish to be uncomfortably cold and wet in case the conditions DO turn out as they have a 50-50 chance of developing.
I remember many years ago when our children were young and we were heading out of state for a big reunion with my dad, step-mother, both my siblings and their families. It was early autumn, so I told each of our two kids to bring a jacket. Both protested, “It’s not cold.” Well, they were correct that it wasn’t cold at that moment, during the daytime, in the state where we lived. But what would the weather be like in the place we were going, at whatever time of day or evening we might be moving about outside? So, despite them ignoring my admonition, I secretly packed a jacket for each of them anyway. Sure enough, the very first evening at the destination, it turned quite chilly and they were both “freezing.”
“Go to the car and get your jackets,” I said.
“But we didn’t bring our jackets,” they replied.
“I know, but I brought them FOR you.”
They were optimists… but was I a pessimist? I don’t think so. I believe I was a practical realist.
Or take this example: If you already know a certain stretch of road has lots of potholes, and you therefore travel that stretch slowly, carefully, and make adjustments as you proceed… are you a pessimist? Conversely, would an optimist simply barrel down that highway, regardless of the danger to his/her car and its suspension? Do optimists lose their optimist card if they slow down and assess potential hazards? Do pessimists deserve their “Eeyore” label simply because they point out things (like potholes) which should be avoided?
And speaking of Eeyore… yeah, it’d be a bummer being around someone so constantly gloomy. But wouldn’t it be equally uncomfortable and exhausting to be constantly badgered by the unrelenting boisterousness of someone like Tigger?
Let’s examine the world of un-famous authors — and, yeah, there are plenty of us. A severely pessimistic writer would not submit a manuscript to a contest, agent, editor, publisher… simply with the belief that “they wouldn’t want it anyway.” And I’ve know some writers who think that way.
On the other hand, an egotistical optimist might submit early, unpolished drafts to any and all with the attitude that “they have to love it, because I wrote it.”
In between those extremes are the people who hover on the scale somewhere between Plus-10 percent and Minus-10 percent … where the PLUS side reaches to positive 100% and the MINUS side reaches to negative 100%. Zero would be dead center. The practical realist’s “needle” would typically be on the zero mark. Depending upon circumstances, recent experiences, prevailing market conditions, etc., that individual’s needle could flicker anywhere between those two points on the meter.
To get a somewhat objective measure of where I am on that scale, I took a very short “personality” test. I didn’t think much of the test questions, but here’s how I scored:
42 on the optimism line
50 on the pessimism line
And here is the summary the thoughtful test-makers composed on my behalf:
You sometimes believe that the future holds positive opportunities with successful outcomes. Holding on to this will help you to cope with stressful situations and help with your motivation and persistence. You do sometimes view the world as a place of bad experiences and events, at these times you are unlikely to invest much trust or faith in the belief that things will turn out ok.
I could ramble on and on about my take on practical realism versus the extremes of optimism and pessimism, but let me share a few summary quotes by writer Jeremy Dean:
There are some advantages to optimism like it seems to make people feel better about life. But there are also advantages for pessimism in that thinking the worst helps some pessimists cope better with the world.
But we should be less concerned with which is ‘better’ or which camp is larger and more interested in why people see the world in such different ways in the first place.
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To cope with this unpredictability some of us choose to think optimistically because it helps motivate us to try, try again. For others a pessimistic mindset performs the same function. By thinking about what might go wrong it helps protect us against when things do go wrong.
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Being optimistic allows people to pursue their goals in a positive way: to dream a bigger and better dream, which they can work their way towards. Optimists also seem to respond better to positive feedback, and part of being optimistic may be generating this feedback for themselves, i.e. thinking positive thoughts.
On the other hand being pessimistic may help people reduce their natural anxiety and to perform better. Also, pessimists seem to respond better to negative feedback. They like to hear what the problems were, so they can correct them. Again, part of why pessimists generate these sorts of negative thoughts is that it helps them perform better.
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Here is a link to the entire excellent article by Jeremy Dean:
What about YOU? Is your glass half full or half empty? Or do you think that image sort of misses the point in the discussion of optimism vs. pessimism?
[JLS # 465]