Looking at the bright side of life?
I have declared myself a pessimist elsewhere. What does that really mean, you may wonder. Martin Seligman is an American psychologist who did a formidable job putting optimism and pessimism into an analytical frame. Seligman is convinced that it is possible to learn to become more or less of one or the other, depending on what serves you well. At the same time, he argues that most likely, we are all born with a certain disposition either for pessimism or optimism. In other words, either you are a person who most likely will find it easy to look at the bright side of life, or you more easily do the opposite; see problems, faults and possible disasters lurking beneath any situation.
Ok, let’s get to the substance; optimism/pessimism has to do with several tendencies in the way people are thinking and resonating about what has happened and predicting the likelihood that it may happen again in the future. So, if we assume that some bad occurrence that happened, was a one time incident, we’re more likely an optimist. If we think that this was not an exception, but rather the rule, then we take a pessimistic outlook on the situation. Another aspect of optimism/pessimism is whether we explain the cause of a problem to ourselves or others. Pessimists tend to think they are the cause of any problem, whereas optimists think it’s everybody else or the situation which are at fault. When something good happens, the opposite reasoning occurs; optimists think it’s all their fault, whereas pessimists give credit to everybody else, or to situational factors like luck, the good weather, etc.
Perhaps you have already begun classifying yourself as one or the other by now. To me, the most fascinating thing about these concepts is how I can use this information to understand my own disposition or those in close proximity to me, and how I think and reason about things that go on in my life. Even better, I would hope that my well-being and access to happiness, would not be jeopardized by a disposition that is not serving me in a constructive way.
As I stated before, I am a born pessimist. I used to be very worried as a child, always the one who very easily (and eagerly, I might add) would see the worst case scenario in any situation. I was also very critically inclined, talented in detecting what was wrong in a logical reasoning, in a picture presented to be perfect but in reality was not, etc.
Although such inclinations actually may be good qualities in certain jobs (such as being a researcher, lawyer or mathematician) and life situations (…eh, can’t really think of examples), it is probably easier to imagine what a drag life may be, if this is the thinking that is going on inside your head, mostly. However, my older sister tells me I used to be a happy child, so the pessimistic inclination cannot be the whole picture, thank God. For instance, I was also good at being very present in the moment; getting engaged and enthusiastic about whatever was going on and leaving my critical self out of the equation, altogether. As I have become more familiar with these two sides of my personality, I have named them Irmelin (the critical analyst) and Immi (the happy-go-lucky one).
As I grew up, I can see how I drifted towards the optimists and happy-go-lucky ones. I have a sister who is just about a year older than me, and she was the risk taker, the loudmouth and funny one and I loved to be around her. I did not, however, like it when she convinced me to take part in her risky ideas and projects, but I loved hearing about all the (crazy) things she did after the fact, and was fascinated by her guts and her courage to not give a damn about this or the other.
Later on in life, I tended to be drawn to people who had similar qualities; grand gestures, risk takers, people who were eager to dream big dreams and yeah, the optimists. In fact, I ended up marrying one just like this.
An interesting choice, to say the least.
Because, for sure I have been getting a lot of carefree action into my life and plenty of resistance to my critical inclinations and worst case scenario thinking. At the same time, I have thrown myself into plenty of uhuu-zones (when your ambitions are way beyond your capacities) which is where the optimists really enjoy themselves. The question is, when a pessimist (with a happy-go-lucky sub-personality, mind you) and an optimist (at the high end of the optimist scale) marry – what do you get? What kinds of mutual decisions, dreams, ambitions and actual life projects come out of it? And who wins most of the time, or just some of the time? The pessimist or the optimist or both?
Even if it is an interesting question to pose, I am not sure how constructive it is to come up with an answer for it. (In Norwegian we have a saying which goes something like this; what is had, is had and what is eaten is surely eaten; meaning: it is not worthwhile dwelling on past actions, since they cannot be undone, anyway.) The fact is that we’ve been together for about 30 years, and whereas it has surely involved some personal and relational battles to come to agreement on things, we’ve probably both benefited immensely from joining up with someone who is our complete opposite. I have become more daring and have had more fun than I would have had without a true optimist on my side, and he has stalled a bit and has taken a few more precautions than he otherwise would have, perhaps even saved his life in the process.
For example, I must admit that I would probably not have gone on that sabbatical to Zanzibar with three kids and no job to come home to, about ten years ago, had it not been for the fact that my optimist husband pushed the idea forward and made sure to manifest it into a (somewhat) realistic project. Not unexpectedly (from my point of view) things did not turn our as planned and a lot of things gave us problems underway. My husband had definitely been too optimistic in the planning process, as usual. Nevertheless, I would not be without that experience. It was an amazing time for the entire family, but from a realistic point of view, it was far beyond our capacities. From a pessimistic standpoint, it would not even be worth sitting down with a glass of wine to start dreaming about.
The photo is a collage of the family members put together by photographer Sture Nepstad (individual pictures taken privately at Zanzibar.)
Of course there has been projects that do not have this kind of happy conclusion, but instead ended up as complete disasters. Buying that apartment in the middle of the ski slopes up in the high mountains a few hours’ drive from Oslo, was one of those. From an optimistic point of view, it was such a great idea, spending those otherwise dark and dreary weekends during winter season outdoors in the white winter wonderland, hanging out with family, friends and loving life. And, if we would come to a point where we were in over our heads, financially (something I, the pessimist knew for sure we were), the optimistic perspective would be to just sell it. Except, when push came to shove, it was absolutely not an easy sell, and we had to take a huge financial loss simply to get it off our hands.
So it seems, you win some and you loose some, which may be fair enough, had it not been for the fact that the pessimists are much more likely to dwell on and take responsibility for the losses, than what is the case with the optimists. So, comparatively speaking, I have probably had much more pain related to the projects that went down the drain, than what my optimist husband has had.
Another interesting question is whether anything has changed, as the years have gone by and if it is true, what Seligman argues, that it is possible to move on the scale of optimism and pessimism?
Speaking for myself, I know for sure that I have become less of a pessimist, probably as a result of systematic self-leadership as well as my tendency to be attracted to and choose to hang with people from the ‘other’ camp; the optimists. At the same time, at my core, I am still pretty pessimistic. As I was instilled with these two different kinds of personalities from the outset, one quite pessimistic and one of the happy-go-lucky kind, I have played them out in different roles and different life areas, but also combined them to (once in a while) make the best of both worlds. Becoming a researcher has definitely fed on my pessimistic inclination (basing any and all assertions on scientific procedures and methodology), but at the same time, I have searched for – and fortunately found theoretical perspectives that take a rather optimistic outlook on things, such as positive psychology, positive leadership and appreciative inquiry. These are all perspectives that center around researching what works, rather than what doesn’t work, what is desired, rather than what is undesirable or problematic, or what the best case scenarios may be, rather than the opposite.
In my private life, I have learned to ask first, what was good about this day, when we sit down at the dinner table, being sure to turn the attention to something good, rather than letting the conversation automatically flow into a discussion of something problematic, such as; “yeah, it was a good day, but…” and then the rest is about what comes after the ‘but’ rather than all the good stuff that happened that was not problematic, but interesting, fun and exciting, which, strangely enough are often left unspoken and unexplored in daily conversations.
So, yeah, it is possible to learn more optimistic thought patterns and communication techniques and it is certainly possible to detect it when your own thinking is so negative that even the most pessimistic will realize it does not make sense to spend time and energy thinking through the absolutely, catastrophically worst possible scenarios of any situation. As I finally realized when I was about 25, if I were to become so unfortunate as to get a terminal illness at the age of 25, it was not likely that I would be able to predict which one. Thus, wasting time worrying about the wrong decease, did not make much sense. Finally, I rested my case as a worried hypochondriac.
When it comes to how optimists may benefit from becoming a bit more realistic, I not sure what to recommend since it is so out of my realm. However, from observation it seems that when you have fallen flat on your face enough times, there is probably no way around pointing the causal explanation to oneself and to something beyond bad luck, and figuring out what can be learned from it and what can be done differently next time. Alas, there is no better teacher than to err big time.
So, my conclusion must be that learning to think, resonate and communicate in ways that are more constructive for us is absolutely possible and recommendable, whether we lean towards being too much of an optimist or too much of a pessimist. Even more so; making sure we don’t box ourselves into identifications that are not serving us well, might be the most important lesson of it all.
 For a detailed description, read his book Learned optimism. How to change your mind and your life, also available in Norwegian translation. For a more general idea, I recommend Authentic Happiness, translated to Ekte Lykke. Positiv psykologi i praksis in Norwegian.