I got thinking about this recently after talking with Meg at Why does bad advice happen to good people. Meg has the amazing ability to optimistically see the silver lining in almost any dark cloud, and I very much do not. It makes me wonder, though, whether that makes me a pessimist, or am I just a realist?
To start off, it’s good to know what exactly we’re talking about. Google provides us with the following definitions:
- Realism: the attitude or practice of accepting a situation as it is and being prepared to deal with it accordingly
- Pessimism: a tendency to see the worst aspect of things or believe that the worst will happen; a lack of hope or confidence in the future
- Optimism: hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something
To throw in one more definition that seems relevant, Wikipedia defines the cognitive distortion known in CBT as fortune telling as “predicting outcomes (usually negative) of events.”
Let’s start with optimism. Wouldn’t being certain that a positive outcome will happen be just another form of fortune telling? What about hoping for a positive outcome when there’s no realistic evidence to suggest that a positive outcome is likely or even possible? If things have been chugging along in a certain direction, for things to turn out differently a major course correction might be required. I’m not convinced that it’s helpful or productive it is to anticipate that’s likely to happen. Does it potentially just set you up for disappointment if you’ve been hoping for something that’s probably not going to happen?
I’m sure in some ways being optimistic is a more pleasant way to go through life. I used to be pretty optimistic myself. But when the world kicks you down enough times, it’s hard to ignore all the negative. Absolutely we should try to appreciate the positive around us, but the way I look at it optimism is about expecting certain good things to happen in the future, while appreciating the positive is much more grounded in the present moment.
Problematic pessimism is kind of like problematic optimism, just in the reverse direction. There’s still that element of fortune telling to it. If things are chugging along in neutral, there’s not necessarily evidence to suggest that the train is going to derail around the next corner.
Pessimism can also easily turn into using past events to predict negative events in the future, even if the variables that produce those consequences are fully outside of one’s control. The dark cloud of mental illness can make it easy to fall into that trap and feel oh so certain about the conclusions we draw.
What sort of comes to mind is the idea that gamblers may slip into that if the number 12 came up in the lottery last week, there’s no chance of it coming up again this week. It just doesn’t work that way. Past negatives don’t necessarily predict future negatives. A more real-life example of this is the idea that because past friendships or romantic relationships have been unsuccessful, any future relationships are doomed. Interpersonal relationship success depends very much on the other person involved, meaning there is a very high degree of uncertainty going on, so fortune-telling in this context doesn’t work very well either.
I see realism as the view that things are the way they are, and acceptance of that generally produces the most satisfying results. In terms of my own illness, it has continued along in its treatment-resistant fashion, and it’s been three years since I was last in remission. My realist (or at least I consider it that way) perspective is that unless there’s some sort of magic wand to make things better or a major stressor to trigger a worsening, my illness is most likely going to continue on as is. By accepting that, I’m not wasting mental energy on fighting it or hoping for something to occur that’s unlikely to happen, and instead I’m focused on finding ways to manage in spite of it.
If factors outside of your control would need to change significantly for a more positive or negative outcome to occur, is there a compelling reason to anticipate that a magic wand will appear and do a little dance, and then those changes will happen? While there may be some things that we can do to control mental illness, the reality for many of us is that a large part of the illness package is out of our control. If I were to plan activities based on the idea of my anhedonia resolving, I’m likely to end up with wasted money on theatre, ballet, and travel tickets.
When certain variables are completely out of our control, whether we’re optimistic or pessimistic, things are going to go down the way they go down, regardless of what we predict/hope for/dread. Sometimes realism might be accepting that there’s inherently a high degree of uncertainty and just riding it out.
So, is the glass half full or half empty? Neither. It’s filled 250 mL out of a 500 mL capacity. Not full, not empty, just is.
Where do you think of yourself in terms of optimism/pessimism/realism?