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How Do We Stay Optimistic in a Complicated World?

Optimism is about inner power and courage. Optimism doesn’t have to shout from the rooftops to prove its point. It can be silent and humble, or loud and excited.


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Angela Yurchenko

5 months ago | 5 min read
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Realism isn’t the answer

Ask me whether I see the glass as “half-full” or “half-empty” and I may get away with a humorous answer —like I’m just hanging right in there with the “half-and-half” crowd.

Jokes apart though, the case of optimists vs pessimists feels like it’s becoming a cold one in a world that’s too complicated for an optimistic prognosis.

In the age of instant information and literally billions of pieces of advice on every question a human being has ever come up, it’s getting incredibly hard to don rose-colored glasses and keep them on.

In times when even kids are hardly optimistic about the world’s future, the proverbial glass test used for a quick “diagnosis” of the amount of optimism/pessimism a person is predisposed to looks kind of naive against the background of the digital age.

And yet, at their core, a large number of life situations still boil down to a question as minimalistic as that: when two outcomes seem equally plausible, which side do we gravitate towards? The side of a positive or negative outcome?

In a world with greater than ever depression rates and a nation with 40 million adults suffering from anxiety disorders each year, it certainly looks like the “half-empty” glasses may outnumber the “half-full” ones any day soon.

In fact, I’m sure most people would find no harm in seeing the glass as half-full if not for life proving the opposite with unsolicited regularity.

When it does so, it usually spills that very glass of water on our head — which feels more like a bucket of cold water than 100ml of room temperature liquid. Get that once or twice on your head, and you’d think a second time before being overly optimistic.

While the depression and mental illness statistics unravel graphic tales not just in the U.S. but globally, the paradox is that “pessimism” has become a redundant word. Pessimism is taboo in our society where every single pic you post has to be filtered for optimism.

That’s why many people I know who identify the glass as “half-empty” say they just don’t want to put their hopes up and be disappointed later. This doesn’t make them pessimists, God forbid, but realists.

Google says that realism is the “acceptance of a situation as is and being prepared to deal with it accordingly.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary, however, defines it in a more eye-opening way as the “concern for fact or reality and rejection of the impractical and visionary.

In the battle of optimists vs pessimists, it would make sense that it’s the realists who come out as winners. However, the trouble with realism lies precisely in that MW definition: so long as realism is the rejection of the impractical and visionary, it cannot save humankind.

When we look at it, none of the inventions and breakthroughs of humankind were ever realistic. When Galileo argued that the earth and other planets orbit the sun, it was met as plain heresy.

Yet imagine telling Galileo himself that humans will once fly into space on a regular basis, walk on the moon, and explore Mars. Realistic? You bet not.

What about tech gadgets like smartphones? Didn’t we get the first tiny glimpse of them hundreds of years ago in fairy-tales with their “magic mirror” that “knew all” and could even talk back [Google, Alexa]?

But then we all know how unrealistic all the gadgets at our fingertips had been for the previous 6000 years of human civilization.

Examples like these abound and prove to us that realists were never the drivers of human progress. If to the “pessimists” we at least owe multiple volumes of poetry cultivating the lovelorn Muse, then the “realists” haven’t had much luck in either art or science.

Those were always the devoted visionaries who moved mountains, looking into the future fearlessly. This is exactly the kind of optimism psychology recommends us to practice.

What optimism really is

The key to productive optimism lies in understanding what psychology means by optimism — which is quite different from our definition.

Unless we want to join the genius but eternally suffering poets, a desire to birth creative ideas in a world where only powerful vision can break through the thorns leaves us with only one choice — cultivating an optimistic mindset.

Yet the benefits of staying positive don’t end there. According to multiple studies cited by Harvard Health Publishing, an optimistic disposition protects your cardiovascular health, helps people recuperate from surgery faster, keeps blood pressure stable and guards the body against infections.

The key to productive optimism lies in understanding what psychology means by optimism — which is quite different from our definition.

Science has two ways of evaluating optimism. These are called dispositional optimism and explanatory style.

Dispositional optimism is about the person’s outward positive vision of the future — the kind we frequently see in outgoing, optimistic kinds of people. Explanatory style is a deeper analysis — the real measure of the person’s positivity. It’s this trait that experienced employers screen unsuspecting employees for during job interviews.

To cite the same Harvard Health source, “Explanatory style is based on how a person explains good or bad news. The pessimist assumes blame for bad news (“It’s me”), assumes the situation is stable (“It will last forever”), and has a global impact (“It will affect everything I do”).

The optimist, on the other hand, does not assume blame for negative events. Instead, he tends to give himself credit for good news, assume good things will last, and be confident that positive developments will spill over into many areas of his life.”

The major difference between being optimistic and pessimistic is about looking beyond current situations. It’s seeing the world as much more complex than involving just our current struggles, emotions, and even failures.

Seen from that side, optimism is not the kind of social media attribute where life is always “in chocolate”. It’s not about closing eyes to the reality of the world through any kind of rosy filter. It’s not even (always) about us.

Optimism is about inner power and courage. Optimism doesn’t have to shout from the rooftops to prove its point. It can be silent and humble, or loud and excited. Optimism can be introverted or extroverted. It’s not a manifestation of emotion but a definition of character.

Optimism is strength — or, to put it in Merriam Webster terms, it’s “a doctrine that this world is the best possible world”.

Even if it disappoints us and causes us grief, this is the only world we’ve got (at least for now) to create, live, and imagine the impossible in.

To live up to that, we have to start by believing in ourselves and each other. We have to start by being optimists.

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Angela Yurchenko

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Bilingual pianist & business journalist. Writing about the Human Experience.


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