A Brief Analysis Of Optimism

Exposing the second dimension that defines optimists and pessimists.

If someone asked me today if I am an optimist, I’d probably respond in the affirmative. However, that description is simply too brief and too nebulous to satisfy me. Someone who does not identify as an optimist might judge me negatively based on this, assuming I’m naive or blissfully ignorant. I will have lost credibility with that person, and thus lost the opportunity to help them.

The dichotomy between optimism and pessimism is not black and white, but rather a gamut — it is a 2-dimensional relationship. The second dimension determines the mindset as being either logical or illogical. Depending on which corner of the spectrum a person falls, the true nature of their outlook will vary dramatically. It is this relationship that has prompted me to write this analysis, and I hope it will help you to better identify this aspect of philosophy in yourself and others.

The 2-Dimensional Relationship

I’ve created a diagram to help illustrate the relationship between the varying types of optimism and pessimism. Take a moment to consider your own inclinations, and try to figure out where you land. Then, do the same for someone significant in your personal or work life. If possible, think of one person for each of the four quadrants, and use this information to gain a deeper understanding of them.

An optimistic person sees things in a positive light, finds opportunity, and emphasizes the bright side. A pessimistic person is distrustful, thinks in terms of limits and downsides, and focuses on negativity. A logical mindset is one that is flexible, open to new ideas, and adaptable to ever-changing circumstances. It is based on reason. An illogical mindset is one that is steadfast, stubborn, and resistant to external influence. It is based on emotion.

In certain cases, fixed mindsets can be the better option, such as in the case of a core value system. A person’s values should be based on sound principles, and should be unwavering and constant. However, in the case of optimism and positive thinking, one should consider more dynamic options. I’ll elaborate on the four quadrants for your consideration.

I. Logical Pessimism (Skepticism)

This is the most common of the four, and one of the stealthiest. There are many people who proudly wave the flag of skepticism, but many more who experience this tendency without being fully aware of it. Those who tend towards anxiety are usually members of this quadrant until they take initiative to remove themselves from it.

The skeptic takes a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach to life. This person always prepares for the worst, even if hoping for the best. The fluid and logical nature of this mindset leaves this person open to the possibility of good outcomes, but the overwhelming doubt and distrust are dominant. When good things happen, this person will rejoice and be thankful, but not for long. The skeptic doesn’t spend too much time enjoying good fortune, because of the expectation that a dark cloud must be looming over the horizon. This type of person will use logic to justify their negative outlook, and often cite past events as evidence. Without much belief in themselves or the future, skeptical individuals progress through life slowly and rarely achieve their true potential.

Key Traits:

  • Distrust
  • Doubt
  • Anxiety
  • Resistance
  • Criticism

II. Logical Optimism (Security)

This is a somewhat rare mindset of a logical nature. It provides strength and adaptability, and provides the greatest likelihood of success in life. It strikes a crucial balance between positive-thinking and awareness, making it an effective asset to a person’s core value system.

The secure individual always believes goodness will come to them, because they believe in their own ability to produce it. This person does not fear new undertakings, or expect bad intentions from others. Although optimistic, a secure person is not ignorant to danger, and always remains vigilant. People with security are thoroughly aware that bad things may happen, but they take the necessary steps to ensure the best possible outcome. When disaster or tragedy strikes, this person accepts it, learns from it, and moves on. A person who is truly secure has accepted responsibility for his or her self, and has decided that their path in life will lead to greatness and fulfillment.

Key Traits:

  • Courage
  • Resilience
  • Leadership
  • Adventure
  • Adaptability

III. Illogical Pessimism (Nihilism)

There’s little to say in favor of this mindset. This form of pessimism is very different from the other. It is the mindset of despair and hopelessness. It is marked by a general contempt for the world and an absolute obsession with negativity.

The nihilist obstinately believes they are doomed in every endeavor. They believe that nothing good ever happens to them, and if it does, it’s just a fluke. This person does not believe they are capable of creating positive change or achieving success. Instead, they reach for the lowest hanging fruit in order to get by, and gravitate towards activities of a habitual or self-indulgent nature. Anything that requires effort or conviction is impossible in their eyes. This person will often form a tough outer shell, and may acquire social and professional skills out of necessity, but the true extent of their misery always becomes apparent sooner or later. Always seeing darkness and expecting failure, these beliefs become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Key Traits:

  • Depression
  • Hopelessness
  • Isolation
  • Contempt
  • Apathy

IV. Illogical Optimism (Naiveté)

Although a form of optimism, I would usually favor a logical pessimist over this one. This mindset of blissful ignorance leaves the individual weak and exposed, and is marked by a refusal to see the world as it really is.

The naive person loves to try and fix everything, and refuses to walk away from a bad situation unless forced to. This person opts for denial when met with adversity. They’d rather handle problems with wishful thinking, and usually take the “forgive and forget” approach with toxic relationships. All emotional energy is spent pretending everything is okay, and none is spent on developing proactive solutions. This type of person has usually experienced a lot of pain and hardship in the past, and believes the best defense is to smile and ignore. The cruel reality of this coping mechanism is that it only serves to invite even more pain and suffering.

The other side of this coin is the naive individual who has yet to experience true hardship. They give out their trust indiscriminately and exercise little caution because they have no reason to feel otherwise. Often having a history of being sheltered and protected, this person is extremely vulnerable to the harsh realities of the world. When the inevitable day of reckoning finally arrives, this person will usually swing far and fast into the realm of pessimism.

Key Traits:

  • Denial
  • Overconfidence
  • Vulnerability
  • Instability
  • Leniency

How To Help Yourself And Others

At the beginning of this article I suggested that you keep in mind a few individuals that represent these four quadrants. Now that you’ve gained a deeper understanding of these concepts, you’ll have a deeper understanding of those people. You may also have a deeper understanding of yourself. A mindset of logical optimism (security) is not only something for you to establish within yourself — it is something you can help instill in others through guidance and subtle influence. The person needn’t even be aware that they are being guided. The objective is not to guide them towards a certain mindset, but to guide them away from their own folly.

The self-destructive mindset of the nihilist is best treated with excessive optimism. You must radiate positivity around this person, and never give them an opportunity to indulge in their bitterness. Demonstrate the usefulness of logic and optimism through example, and shower them with love and compassion.

The vulnerable and precarious mindset of naiveté can only be corrected with blunt logic. Be warned: if you decide to accept the responsibility of bursting this person’s blissful bubble once and for all, you better be prepared to help them through the process of putting the pieces back together. Sometimes it’s best to allow them to walk head-first into catastrophe, to provide context for the reconstruction you are going to guide them through afterwards.

Because skepticism is such a close relative of true security, helping these people is as simple as keeping them close to you. Being logical in nature, they will eventually have no choice but to see the benefit of converting to logical optimism through your example. The skeptic takes comfort in their preparedness and caution, so place emphasis on the traits of courage and adventure in order to counteract these tendencies.

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