It’s the classic question of, “Is the glass half-empty or half-full?” Optimists view the glass as half-full, whereas pessimists view the glass as half-empty. Yet, when we talk about optimists and pessimists, we often think not about how people view the glass but rather how people feel about the glass. We equate optimism with happiness and pessimism with depression. On the surface, this makes sense. Optimistic people are happy people; pessimistic people are sad people. But I don’t think this gives us the complete picture. Our emotional states are but symptoms of where we fall on the scale of pessimism to optimism. The root of our perspective on life is something else…
Currently, I’m reading an interesting psychology book called Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain by Elaine Fox. In the book, Fox explains the origin of the word optimistic. Originally, the term was used as a derivative of the term “optimum” by philosopher Gottfried Liebniz who postulated that the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds. Pessimism soon came on the scene as its opposite–that the world we live in is the worst of all possible worlds. Eventually, optimism came to be the perspective that everything is ultimately good, whereas pessimism came to be the perspective that everything is ultimately evil.
What am I mentioning this? Because it is important to understand that optimism and pessimism are not merely emotional reactions to stimuli. They are perceptual lenses through which we see the world. They are about our judgment calls. They are about our beliefs. If we fundamentally believe that things are good, we’re optimists. If we fundamentally believe that things are bad, we’re pessimists.
You Are Not a Realist
Most intellectually-minded people look at optimism and pessimism and turn their noses up at both of them. Optimists are gullible folks who see the world through “rose-tinted glasses.” Pessimists are whiny folks who only want to complain everything. We’re not optimists or pessimists. We’re realists!
In her book, Fox gives the hypothetical scenario of an employee showing up late to a meeting. As she sits down, she notices her boss giving her an ambiguous “half-smile.” Is her boss smiling at her as a welcome or silently chastising her for being late? How does she interpret such a gesture “realistically?” She can’t. It’s impossible.
Being a “realist” is, practically speaking, not even possible. If it were possible to be realistic all of the time, we would all do it. Being optimistic or pessimistic isn’t about how we interpret facts so much as it is about how we interpret uncertainty. We can’t always know everything in its entirety; we must make judgement calls. It is inescapable. As much as you would like to be, you are not a realist. You fall somewhere on the continuum of optimism to pessimism. Want to know whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist? Ask yourself how you respond to uncertainty (Tweet this).
Why Our Perspective Matters
So, if you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering why you should care. What does it matter if you’re an optimist or a pessimist? Things are the way they are, regardless of what you think about them, right? No, of course not.
Suppose you are that employee in the scenario above and your boss gives you an extra project during the meeting. If you are an optimist, you will probably think that your boss was smiling because he was happy to see you and that he give you a new project because he trusted you to get it done. If you are a pessimist, you will think that your boss was displeased with you and that the project was a punishment for you showing up late. The optimist puts her all into the project wanting to show her boss how grateful she is for the opportunity. The results are outstanding and she gets a promotion. The pessimist slacks off on the project, thinking that it’s busy work, and ends up getting fired for doing such a poor job.
It’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we believe that something is true (our boss is not pleased with us), we will act as if it is true (we slack off on the “busy work”), and–by our beliefs–we actually make it true (our boss fires us). Use any analogy you want. Paint any picture. Put together any scenario. Whatever story you tell, it is clear that our thoughts significantly influence our behavior.
Furthermore, we are subject to confirmation bias. We only see the information that confirms what we already believe. Fox also talks about a famous test in which subjects are shown a set of positive and negative images on a screen (a freshly-baked apple pie and a sloppily-made sandwich, a cute puppy and a snarling dog, etc.), followed by triangles in the same place that the images held on the screen. Subjects were told to click on the triangles as soon as they saw them. Subjects who were considered more optimistic clicked more quickly on the triangles that replaced the positive images and subjects who were considered more pessimistic clicked more quickly on the triangles that replaced the negative images. In other words, people fixated on the images that corresponded with their perspectives.
What Do You Believe?
In the scenario above, the employee who got fired will believe that she got fired because her boss hated her–not because she slacked off on the project. Similarly, the employee who got a promotion will believe that she did so because her boss loved her rather than because she did so well on her project. In both cases, it was their actions that led the boss to his decision. But those actions were driven by the employees’ beliefs.
How do you see the world? Is it conspiring against you…or is it conspiring for you? Will things likely work out for the better…or are things likely to just get worse? How you answer this question will determine how your world responds to you and how things actually work out.
Is the glass half-empty or half-full? The optimist who is dying of thirst looks at the glass as half-full, reasons that she can drink a little, and manages to survive until she can find more water. The pessimist who is dying of thirst looks at the glass as half-empty, reasons that she can’t drink anymore, and dies before she can find more water.
Your beliefs will determine your reality. Believe wisely (Tweet This).