Random Thoughts on Optimism vs Pessimism

By Don Pelton

There’s an interesting philosophical aspect to the issue of optimism vs pessimism that’s worth more study and more comment. Here are a few random thoughts.

Both optimism and pessimism are bets on the future, and therefore subject to all sorts of contingencies including bad judgment, misinformation (noise in the communication), disinformation (getting “snowed”), guile, wishful thinking, acts of God, intention and will, efforts to persuade, and so on.

Among these contingencies the most interesting to me at the moment is the self-fulfilling nature of those contrary optimistic and pessimistic bets (hinted at in my list above with the items “intention and will” and “efforts to persuade”).

In other words …

The very act of being pessimistic or optimistic may itself affect the outcome

If this is true — and I believe it is — zealous, relentless optimism (or conversely zealous, relentless pessimism) becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy which can win the day. (The “assumption of inevitability” often noted in George W. Bush’s political campaigns may be a Machiavellian version of this phenomenon on the optimistic side).

In other words, optimism and pessimism are each more than mere predictions or guesses about the future.

They are your active contribution to the creation of that future, for which you must forever take responsibility.

As such, your pessimism or your optimism is more than a mere brick in the structure — the vast building — that becomes the future for us all. Your pessimism or your optimism is your contribution to the blueprint — the plan, the shape — of that building.

One of the obstacles to our recognition of this contribution is our skepticism about the power of collective action, the idea that our own small act added to the aggregate of all the small acts of others has any weight or influence at all.

But think of voting. I’m suggesting that optimism and pessimism are effective collective acts in somewhat the same sense (and on somewhat the same scale) that voting is an effective collective act. Optimism and pessimism are each a vote for the imagined outcome.

Of course, I am speaking only of one quality of optimism and pessimism, a quality which may emerge as powerful or recede as inconsequential in any particular case.

Understanding all this may allow us to see ourselves more as agents of change than we normally believe possible.

We may be more influential agents of change — for good or for ill — than we usually imagine.

So beware, if you take an optimistic stance, or a pessimistic stance … beware and consider carefully what responsibility you yourself may have for the outcome.

Consider to what extent your pessimism or your optimism reflects your own subconscious desire for that outcome. (This is more than a little paradoxical, since the very word, “pessimism,” carries the connotation of a fear of — or aversion to — the predicted outcome. The paradox may (?) be resolved by understanding the conflict between the conscious and the unconscious. The unconscious has an agenda of its own, not always obvious to the conscious mind).

There’s a phenomenon long known to psychologists, the tendency to manifest what you imagine, regardless of whether the image that seizes you provokes fear or desire.

It’s the proverbial case of the driver so obsessed with avoiding the oncoming telephone poll that he crashes into it.

I once so worried about tripping on some stairs leading up to a stage where I was about to speak before an audience of hundreds that I tripped and fell on the stairs when my name was called.

The tendency for what is imagined to manifest in reality is one of those mainstays of the New Age movement (mixed up with a lot of other sentimental nonsense that also characterized that movement).

Consider whether you are ready to take responsibility for what you predict (whether desired or feared).

And consider how your understanding of that responsibility should guide your actions.

Maybe this too is what is meant by “in dreams begin responsibilities.”

cc: ActiveWorkingMentalFile

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2 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Optimism vs Pessimism”
  1. Anna Haynes says:


    I wonder if this analysis would apply just to our personal efforts and manifestations, or if it would also apply to our efforts to communicate that we continue to increase the hazard of a risk that endangers the young and is seen as terribly reckless by the experts — the most credible experts there are, in an field (science) whose #1 aim is to see what’s actually there; communicating to a public that’s uninformed even on whether the risk exists, and misinformed on its likely severity; and that’s unclear on which actions must be taken to tackle it or the cost-benefit tradeoffs of action versus inaction, or of prevention versus treatment.

    I’d very much like to know how one should communicate effectively, with optimism, to those who might be able to get through to a distracted driver who’s got the radio up high and the kids in the back seat, who’s driving them toward a cliff in the fog.

    What has worked in this community? Who has been making the effort?

    (I do agree that increasing the volume doesn’t work; but making it hard to avoid awareness that children get hit with the outcome, might get through.)

    p.s. Yes, optimism is important too (link).

  2. Anna Haynes says:

    (Increasing the volume of an individual won’t work, I mean. It needs to be a group effort.)

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