Is optimism where we’ve been going wrong all along?
Recently, upon the end of summer and the gloomy winter ahead, I’ve been working extremely hard to keep my feel-good-positive-outlook mood going.
I’ve been meditating more, exercising, taking well-deserved me-time and not pushing myself too far, and generally practicing mindfulness. I’ve been attempting to eat my meals with no distractions — no phone, no book, no TV — to really savor each bite and appreciate my life, I’ve been lying in bed in the mornings rather than diving for my phone, and emanating gratitude for the simple things — money in the bank, a roof over my head, a full fridge.
Sure, it’s been working. I’m feeling lucky, as I should, and generally optimistic about the future.
But I’ve noticed, that my tendency to get angry or anxious about situations out of my control are still at a normal level — no different from before my mindful, meditative trip.
“Though anger seems a pessimistic response to a situation, it is at route a symptom of hope” — Alain De Botton.
If I have to work unexpectedly I’m annoyed; if my metro is late I’m overly anxious; if I have to overcome something out of the unexpected I’m downright pissed off.
Shouldn’t my newly found buddha-esk traits aid me in overcoming these minor inconveniences?
I took on an investigation, to get to the bottom of why my appreciation and mindfulness wasn’t working.
After some googling, I was stopped right in my tracks with a quote by the philosopher, Alain De Botton. He said; “Though anger seems a pessimistic response to a situation, it is at route, a symptom of hope”.
In other words, my preconceived pessimistic reaction in that everything was bad and out to get me, was actually hope, hope that the world could and should be a better place — a place that won’t make me angry or anxious.
As my research stretched, I discovered that De Botton believes that these reactions, be it to losing our keys or missing our metro, should only anger us in a world in which these things never happen. Yet, these bourgeois affairs happen all the time, and we simply shouldn’t react so resentfully, because everything that can happen, will happen.
In our day-to-day difficulties, we ourselves create a feeling of injured self-pity, because we believe everything should have gone right, but now it has gone terribly wrong.
Why is it, that we believe that everything will go right?
Source of Unhappiness
De Botton, actually believes that optimism is the source of our unhappiness in modern living. He argues that our hopeful beliefs about our families, our careers, the planet, and the government, is actually what inevitably causes our bitterness — when it doesn’t turn out as expected.
“The largest part of what we call ‘personality’ is determined by how we’ve opted to defend ourselves against anxiety and sadness” — Alain De Botton
But imagine if, we woke up and expected to miss the metro instead of rushing to the station, only to miss it and have to wait, then proceed to sit on the metro anxiously, counting down the stops, become more bitter with each second, get in trouble with our boss, have no time for our morning coffee and generally be angry and shocked at the negative outcomes that have occurred.
If we had foreseen this scenario, perhaps subconsciously we would have left a little earlier, still fully prepared to miss the metro and accept the consequences. We are perfectly ready to experience the rush, the stress and the bollocking from work. Then imagine that the metro is on time, we have time for a coffee, we have a relaxed greeting at work and we start our day right. How happy would you be feeling in that moment, that all the foreseen negativity hadn’t happened?
To foresee terrible events unfolding is seen as negative thinking, something we need to banish from our minds in order to retain a positive outlook on life.
But what if, negative mindsets actually allowed for positivity? if we always expect the worst to happen, then when it doesn’t, shouldn’t we be overjoyed?
Our brain is a time-traveler, constantly dipping from the present to the past and the future, allowing us to reminisce over the past and dream for the future to ultimately get through the present.
Mastering pessimism is the ultimate remedy for sanity because by viewing things through a pessimistic lens we are seeing the world as it really is.
Every day, we are shocked by the horrible news that pings our phones, or lights up our television. We complain that the world is awful, and the news is depressing.
Yet, hasn’t the news always been depressing? Does the news exist, without troublesome, worrying events to report on? In its essence, the news is inadvertently always bad news.
Pertaining to a consistent negative mindset may seem depressing, but ultimately it is not.
Anger is a Result of Optimism
De Botton argues that anger is not merely a physiological, ‘hot-blooded’ reaction, but a response to optimism — the notion that everything and everyone in this world is ultimately good, when that simply isn’t true.
By waking up each morning and foreseeing and imagining every possible disaster that could occur during the day, we are protecting ourselves from the shock, anger, and anxiety that would result from the optimistic mindset of assuming everything will be okay.
De Botton believes that, by accepting this instability that is the contract of life, we will avoid the injured surprise of negative events and be prepared to act in the face of disaster and disappointment.
“What need is there to weep for parts of life, the whole of it causes tears” — Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Though there are genuine optimists, those that see the good in every situation, most of us have a base rate of sadness, and these negative emotions; sadness; anger; anxiety; are some of our basic default moods.
We should take solace in the normality of these feelings, rather than assuming that optimism is the norm, when it is absolutely not. We are never alone in this sadness, for its commonality is recognizable to all.
You can’t do everything
De Botton also suggests that there is danger in the ideal of meritocracy — the belief that we all get what we deserve.
This is dangerous thinking, for it assumes that if we fail at something, we deserve it when this simply isn’t true.
We should expect failure, and not rely on the black and white thinking that people either deserve their success or their failures, that the other factors in people's lives don’t come into blame.
“Feeling lost, crazy and desperate belongs to a good life as much as optimism, certainty and reason.” — Alain De Botton
He thinks we should embody the Greeks, who worshiped the Goddess of Fortune. When they achieved success, they would worship the goddess, who gave them their fortunes as a gift.
This thinking is crucial because it distances us from our success. We mustn't believe that we own our success, which carries its implied material worth. This, in turn, can lead to serious self-esteem issues that will leave us paralyzed by the entirety of control over our destiny.
In fact, it is this thinking, that has boosted the sales of self-help books across the world. Reams of pages and thousands of authors telling us how to live our lives in order to reach authentic joy.
They promise to teach us how to obtain happiness from our successes, whether this is our weight, our relationships or our career. These guarantees appeal to a world full of hope, one that will pay any money to get what they think they want, when in actuality, the knowledge that we are good and that we cannot achieve everything, might be reassurance enough.
If we accept the knowledge, De Botton claims, of the statistics of success and it’s the likelihood of occurrence, we can remove ourselves as a point of blame for our failures, and it will also alleviate the envy and competitiveness we feel amongst others.
De Botton's mantras may seem depressing, but what he is encouraging is a change of focus, a new perspective.