The Shadow
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The Shadow

Optimist vs. Pessimist

Why they are both wrong about the glass

Photo by manu schwendener on Unsplash

Optimists — the folks who see the glass half full. They see the good in every situation and believe things will turn out well. No matter what life throws at them, they resolutely look on the bright side. They cheerfully make the best of every situation and have never met a cloud without a silver lining. Calling someone an optimist is generally considered a compliment.

Research shows optimists are better liked and more successful than pessimists. They even enjoy a healthier and happierlife than their curmudgeonly counterparts. Look no further than their healthier cardiovascular system. Optimism even positively affects the quality of life of cancer patients and how patients deal with coronavirus stress.

Pessimists — the folks who see the glass half empty. Those who see the dangers in every situation and expect things to turn out poorly. No matter what advantage life throws at them, they determinedly wait for the other shoe to drop. They never met a cloud that didn’t rain on them.

Pessimists generally suffer more physical and mental health problems than optimists. There is a plethora of research warning of the dangers of being overly pessimistic. And I’ve never heard anyone admiringly describe another person as a pessimist. It’s not a compliment, it’s regarded as a flaw.

Research exists to explain everything about these opposites. There are countless books and articles written to help pessimists become more optimistic, whereas other research shows the dangers of becoming overly optimistic.

So, optimism is better than pessimism, but equally harmful if overused.

Confused yet?

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

I don’t think optimists and pessimists are in two separate camps of thought. They are, rather, two sides of the same coin, that coin being locus of control.

Your locus of control is either internal or external and is defined by the degree to which you believe your life is under your own control versus under the control of outside forces.

As far as I can tell, both sides think some sort of force exerts influence over their lives. Like their lives are something outside of their control. Optimists think of this force as working on their behalf while pessimists think it’s working against them. It’s as though they’ve discovered a pattern in life…and are convinced that pattern will hold true.

It takes a bit of hubris to think that you’ve figured out the pattern in life and know what is likely to happen next. Even if you think your optimism or pessimism is based on experience, that you are just calling it as you’ve seen it…it’s still kind of cocky.

If this line of thinking was true then optimists would have their view of life constantly validated because, overall, things go well for them. Pessimists, then, generally would have things go poorly for them.

In other words, optimists are hopeful because they are lucky, and pessimists are doomsayers because they are unlucky.

Doesn’t that sound weird to you?

Why This Is Wrong

The universe doesn’t pay enough individual attention to specifically bless us with luck or curse us with misfortune. If there is an intelligent creator, then how could it possibly be fair to intervene on some people’s behalf and not others? If there is not an intelligent creator, then things truly do happen randomly for good and bad.

I don’t mean it’s random if you total your car because you were drinking and driving- that’s poor decision-making. I mean it’s random if your car is totaled because you get hit by a drunk driver.

The danger in believing some force outside of yourself is responsible for what happens to you is that it provides a built-in excuse to quit. To stop fully participating in your life.

Why bother saving money if you are convinced that everything will somehow work out fine anyway? Or, if you think it’ll turn out poorly no matter what you do, why go through the hassle of budgeting? Why do anything beyond what you have to do, why do anything extra if the outcome doesn’t depend on your efforts?

Optimists and pessimists are both looking at the glass wrong. They both give undue power to outside forces. Both look outside of themselves and place blame for bad outcomes or give credit for good outcomes to something else.

Both are misguided.

It’s not about looking at the bright side or the dark side. It’s not about hoping things will work out for the best or worrying that things will go badly.

When it comes down to it, optimists and pessimists are the same; both are looking outside of themselves, hoping, or worrying about what comes next. Convinced that someone or something else will determine the outcome.

Active, Not Passive

I am not an optimist or a pessimist; I put my faith in my Self.

Sometimes things go smoothly and sometimes every step is a fight. I believe I can deal with whatever comes my way in life and I do not simply hope for things to somehow ‘work out’. I put my energy, my heart, and my soul into making them work out. I think, plan, work, and try. Often, I fail. So I tweak my approach and try again.

And again, and again, until I get it right.

I try to not worry that things will go badly; I know if they do, I will deal with it. I have an entire lifetime of experience that tells me I’ll get through it. I may be bruised and bloodied but I’ll be standing. Or sitting down, maybe laid out on the ground…but it doesn’t matter. The point is that I’m still there, still in the fight.

I can get through anything one way or another. And then I’ll prepare for the next challenge.

It’s Not Pessimism or Optimism, it’s a Skill You Can Develop

If life is a tightrope 60 floors up, then my faith in my problem-solving skills is the giant pole I carry to help me keep my balance. When life is calm, I am deeply grateful, and I work hard to keep things balanced smoothly. And when life is difficult, I dig in and work just as hard to get back to balanced. Either way, the situation is temporary.

Until I’m dead I won’t take the good times for granted and I won’t give in to the bad times. Placing my faith in my ability to figure things out buffers me from the wild swings of fortune that life puts everyone through.

There is only one constant within every situation in my life: me.

If I am solid and grounded, the ups and downs of life are hills and valleys instead of mountains and canyons.

This is our one life (as far as we know). Our one precious single go-around. I don’t want to waste it worrying about whether the glass is half full or half empty. Whether I’m lucky or unlucky. Whether the universe is on my side or not. I want to own my life and live the hell out of it.

Stop trying to figure out if the glass is half full or half empty. Just drink the water to hydrate and then get back to work on your life.



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Amy Torbenson

Amy Torbenson

Mom of two amazing sons and one amazing daughter, lifelong reader of anything and everything, (really) slow runner, and a terrible cook.