By Mary Jaksch
Is optimism always the best strategy? Or has pessimism also got its place?
There are times when it’s natural to feel low: you don’t get the job you want or lose the one you love; you’re forced to sell your home; you lose a loved one; you let go of a dream.
Yes, loss makes us feel low.
When we experience loss, we feel sad and helpless. We lose interest in food, company and sex. Feeling low is a temporary condition. Human beings have a capacity for healing, and low feeling will leave us as we adapt to our changing circumstances.
We can get stuck in feeling low. That’s when we suffer from depression.
The good news is that you can do something about it, according to Professor Martin Seligman.
Seligman has coined two key terms, ‘learned helplessness’ and ‘explanatory style’. ‘Learned helplessness’ when we want to quit because we believe that whatever we do doesn’t matter. The ‘explanatory style’ is the way we explain to ourselves why events happen. The explanatory style can either be optimistic – which stops helplessness. Or it can be pessimistic – which spreads helplessness.
According to Seligman, depression is caused by “…by defeat, failure, and loss and the consequent belief that any action taken will be futile.” He continues:
“How you think about your problems, including depression itself, will either relieve depression or aggravate it.”
Depression and pessimism are closely related.
When we are in a pessimistic state, we are going through a mild version of depression.
We know that optimists achieve more, have better physical health, and feel happier. So, shouldn’t we strive to be optimistic all the time?
Maybe. But let’s not forget that pessimism has an important virtue: it supports a keen view of reality.
I think there is a way that we can be realists, AND have a useful view of reality.
Flexible optimism is a key skill
Flexible optimism isn’t a blanket upbeat state that you apply blindly – it is a way to have control over the way we think about adversity.
Let’s take an example:
You’re driving in the rain and have got onto the wrong side of the motorway. Not good!
If you are a full-blown optimist, you might think, “Oh – look at all these cars coming toward me. They’re all driving on the wrong side of the motorway!!”
If you are a pessimist you’ll see all the cars rushing towards you, freeze and think, “Wow, I’m doomed. I’m going to die any moment!”
As a flexible optimist you might think, “Uh-oh – I’ve made a bad mistake. I’ll quickly get over onto the verge in order to avoid these cars.”
I’m sure you can see that an attitude of flexible optimism is your best chance of survival in this scenario!
Seligman makes some interesting suggestions about when optimism is an advantage, as well pointing out some situations when optimism is not a useful strategy.
Optimism is a great strategy if…
- You want to achieve something
- You want to boost your morale
- If your physical health is at stake
- If you want to lead others
Optimism is a poor strategy if…
- You are planning for an uncertain future
- You are supporting others whose future is dim or who are troubled
Maybe you don’t agree with that last point?
Imagine this scenario: Arlena, a woman in her forties has lost her job, and finds out that she has cancer. She confides in her colleague Susan – who is a full-on optimist. This is what the conversation might look like:
“I’m so gutted. I just lost my job,” says Arlena.
“Oh, that may free you up to what you REALLY want to do.”
“But I’ve got to pay my rent!”
“I’m sure you’ll find a new job tomorrow!”
“I just can’t cope, because I’m worried that I’ve got cancer”
“You just need to be positive and believe that you’ll be alright.”
If you were Arlena, wouldn’t you want to get rid of Susan as quickly as possible? I would!
Both optimism and pessimism are both useful strategies at times. I use the word ‘strategy’ because it implies that we can learn to choose one or the other mindset.
Flexible optimism can enable us to be realistic, as well as hopeful.
I’ll explore flexible optimism in my next post and talk about exactly how pessimists can learn to be more optimistic. That is, I’ll show in detail how each one of us can learn to be in control over the way we think about adversity.
In the meantime let me ask you two questions: Is it always skilful to be optimistic, or not?
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Photo by Conor Lawless