Unrealistic Optimism: The Dark Side of Looking on the Bright Side

This post provides some of the thoughts that resulted in the audio post about a person who will not listen to a canary who is warning him that his house is burning down.

Angel-DemonYin-Yang. Black-White. Angel-Demon (check out the Angel-Demon Tattoo to the left with larger picture and more explanation below). Good-Evil. Interesting that we humans have so many dichotomous forms. Unlike the last 3 pairs, yin-yang alone emphasizes the interrelations between the light and the shadow, a view that makes more sense and is more helpful.

It doesn’t matter whether we view a glass as half-full or half-empty unless that view affects the risks we take in our behavior. If we collapse in despair because we are too half-empty, that is not helpful. If we are an overjoyed bull in a china shop because we are too half-full, that is also not helpful. The point isn’t whether the glass is half-empty or half-full but whether this amount of water is enough for the purpose at hand.

It seems to me that our culture is obsessively optimistic and that anything short of mostly “positive thinking” is viewed as a kind of pathology (If people were equally likely to tag optimists, I wouldn’t feel as motivated to balance the scales.). In fact, being too optimistic, like being too pessimistic, is just one more avoidance strategy our culture has normalized as a way of avoiding unpleasant emotion and disagreement (see this post on intimacy-avoidance strategies). When combined with personal responsibility, we even now have best selling books that suggest anyone not rich, famous, and blissfully happy (see this post discussing nirvana or enlightenment in this context) is simply not thinking positively enough — their problems are their own fault. This is a very comforting view: the vast and potentially dangerous world is under our control…want a Porsche? Just manifest it. But, I digress. Anyway, with this cultural bias in place, people seem to feel free to dismiss arguments, people, future possibilities simply by labeling them as “cynical” or “overly pessimistic.”

The problem with this is that we people don’t like unpleasant emotion and thus, we understandably try to make ourselves feel better through all kinds of fragile forms of emotion regulation, ranging from outright denial/repression/suppression to distraction (e.g., “Let’s go shopping”) to actively distorting reality. This NY Times article, from a young physician, describes some of the fragility of biased positivity:

“As a couple, we did not fight. Our relationship was conceived from a need for security, and stayed small, quiet and safe…from the start we shared a tacit assumption that fighting meant losing love…Our relationship had never developed the vocabulary necessary to express the many colors and intricacies of adult emotion. We had no language for negativity…Our relationship…was like an ornamental piece of crystal: aesthetically pleasing but lacking resilience, and, once shattered, irrecoverable.”

We can distort reality in “positive” ways: “I don’t need to practice safe sex because I won’t catch a disease.” And,  we can distort reality in “negative” ways: “I’m a bad person because I got a B on that test.” In the first case, the distortion makes pregnancy and disease more likely; in the second case, depression. All of this paragraph has solid evidence behind it that I cover if anyone asks. One example is a recent fMRI study in which people were more likely to update their inaccurate estimates of events happening to them if the actual probability of a bad event was lower than their initial estimate but not if it was higher. The bias was more pronounced in optimists (Nature Neuroscience, 2011, 14, 1475-1479.)

What the evidence we have suggests to me is that we often dismiss people as pessimists or “whiners” or “too cynical” because it makes us feel better. If someone’s not worth listening to, we don’t have to deal with their story or the unpleasant emotions their story elicits.

But the real question isn’t whether someone is being optimistic or pessimistic. The real question is to what extent they are right. How clearly are they seeing reality? And this is a vital question for all of us. It’s possible that the person we dismiss as a cynic is simply realistic. It’s possible, of course, that the person we dismiss as pathologically polly-annish is being realistic. The key issue, then, is can we be open to changing our views as we obtain evidence that we are wrong and some other view is more realistic?

This issue may, in fact, be central for a society confronting possible societal collapse. It is central because we will be able to solve problems only to the extent we can see them clearly. And that requires us  to recognize both bright and dark sides of reality.

Finally, there is something deeply pessimistic about pathological optimism: the pessimistic view that we, humans, cannot handle the full range of reality, that we are too fragile for concepts like failure, for emotions like sadness or despair. These are an intimate part of life and when considered can give us a new view that some would even call optimistic. See, for example, this poem by Jack Gilbert, “Failing and Flying“.

Perhaps by embracing the dark and light sides of our experience, we can experience what the young physician in the NY Times article did:

“By the time I met my wife, I was a changed man and a real doctor. And our love developed differently from any I had experienced before. Less like a crystal vase, more like a basketball, our relationship is made for bouncing — for the good and sometimes rough play that modern professional lives generate. We do have fights (oh, yes, we do), but they do not threaten our foundation. They deepen it.”

What this Doctor’s story points to and articulates is the importance and richness of experiencing full emotion. There’s a book that can be written about this, but perhaps many great works of art are great because they honor both the light and the dark. The poem, Kindness, by Naomi Shihab Nye is a great example. “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen is another good example. Two other musical examples also illustrate the point (and are worth listening to). Music by Cloud Cult comes from a place of working through and feeling the deep loss of the lead singer’s son at the age of 2. You can tell. The lyrics and music are a celebration of life, the dark and the light. Imagine Dragons has some similarities. Their music is made much richer because they come from both the dark and the light. Check out this video from the band, dedicated to a Tyler Robinson, a young man who died of cancer.

 

The Girl with the Angel-Demon Tattoo

Angel-Demon

Started in Phoenix, AZ (2008). Finished at Rising Phoenix Tattoo in Addison, IL

I was shopping recently and my checkout person, Emily, had one of the coolest tattoos I’ve seen, wonderfully embodying the spirit of yin-yang.

At first glance the tattoo is of an angel. But, a closer look reveals dragon-style wings, associated with a demon. Above is the word, “Beautiful”, which reads “Disaster” when viewed upside down.

Brilliant!

Life is a beautiful disaster.

A beautiful disaster where the power and lightness of the angel is symbiotic with the impishness and darkness of the demon, forming a complete, healthier, and more powerful being.

There is a deep cultural irony present here for a culture with a significant piece of fundamentalist Christianity. The irony is simple: if the quest to be a good person is attempted by ignoring or suppressing the darkness or demon in ourselves, we are more likely to act badly, in ways that actually are the reason for wanting to avoid the darkness in the first place.

In the real world, a person who is aware of and accommodates both their light and dark, their pleasant and unpleasant thoughts and emotions, is much more likely to act appropriately, with compassion and wisdom.

How inspiring to find such art and depth in a checkout line, which, arguably, represents the opposite of both of these: our light-only-get-it-now-unsustainable-consume-it-all culture.

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