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Seeking Compromise, Part Two: Flying Penguins and Critical Optimism

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“critical optimism has the potential to engender a kind of gracious self-worth, or arrogant humility, depending, of course, on how you see it.”

Last week I wanted to talk about compromise, but realised we needed to clear some ground about worldviews first, broadly grouped as optimistic and hopeful, on the one hand, or pessimistic and cynical, on the other. Self-help and psychology-based industries usually take it for granted that the former is desired and beneficial, while the latter stops us in our tracks. So last week we reviewed the benefits of optimism, like improved health and feelings of well-being, but also the costs: discomfort and avoidance of life’s harder truths. I may even have suggested that unbridled optimism was the door to psychopathy. At the very least, it can be a source of alienation in personal relationships, if not cause some of the dumbest shit humans can get up to. Denial is not a river in Egypt, and this geographical misunderstanding costs us every time. I still want to talk about compromise, but we’re not going to get there today either.

As we concluded last week, then, cynicism and pessimism can be virtuous, because they help us confront hard truths, set realistic goals and are also the pathways to empathy and close social bonds. Not that all those downsides from last week don’t suddenly vanish; unbridled cynicism will put your life in a tailspin just as much as unbridled optimism. Historically, the Cynics of Ancient Greek philosophy believed in an ascetic life of virtue, in accordance with nature’s laws. Nowadays this still correlates in a surprising way: if you believe most positive thinking ideologues, cynics might find themselves living quite the ascetic lifestyle indeed! I can vouch for some truth in that, though does struggling to get by make me cynical, or am I really to believe that already being cynical is why I struggle? My considered answer to the head of the Royal Melbourne Pain Clinic followed thus: “Fuck you.” In any case, we shouldn’t shy away from the negative impacts of cynicism.

Before our pathological Dr Feelgoods out there point to “Ah-HA!” me here, this is a long way from the perrenial bad press cynicism gets, and is enough to take optimism off its perch as the ideal state of mind in all situations. A cynical person would be more likely to acknowledge the flaws of their approach, even if it meant impinging on their success or well-being, and this is precisely my point. A canny reader put me onto this TED talk, worth sharing:

I take issue with much of this talk, as you might expect. Who says believing in your own abilities has anything to do with optimism? Many cynical folks are used to backing their own skills; they have to, because they’re not expecting the world to hand them anything. If Dr Sharot is correct here, though, it’s possible I’m optimistic about my abilities but pessimistic about their capacity to translate into success or happiness.

But mainly, I don’t believe there are optimists and pessimists, in an empirical, testable way. The Dysatisfunctional position is that we are all surely mixes of the two, optimistic about some things and cynical about other things. Even when clear tendencies exist for any given person, we might generalise and label someone accordingly, in a kind of shorthand. But there are problems with scientifically measuring optimism over one particular tested topic, then generalising across that person’s whole life, folding in health indicators, perceived happiness etc. I’ve used that shorthand in this post, but I’m not claiming scientific knowledge along the way, and neither should these guys.

And anyway, respondants’ perception of their happiness might be WRONG. Sounds crazy, but many people think they are happy, when anyone with a clue can see they are perpetual runners, living with that perpetual crazed wild horse eye we’ve all seen before:

dysatisfunctional wild horse eyes

Several ex-girlfriends over the years have pulled the exact same face on the way out the door.

Or they might be perfectly happy while projecting all their chaos and crap onto others, in which case they might be happy while outsourcing their unhappiness. In the business world it’s called negative externalization, and it’s just as despicable in private matters. So for Dr Sharot and her fellow scientists, relying on the conscious mind to provide data for their experiments is impressively flawed, especially for a discipline that created the concept of the sub-conscious, which ushers in the certainties of unknown motivations and limits to self-knowledge. Science won’t save us from our dysatisfunction; rather it makes us more dysfunctional in the false certainty it provides. Penguins, no matter how optimistic, simply will not “soar like an eagle”, as Dr Sharot suggests.

Is getting insurance sensibly pessimistic because you’re counting on needing it, or optimistic because you’re sure that whatever happens, you will be covered by the policy? Stupid penguins…

Dr Sharot’s gist, nonetheless, is that downsides have their upsides. Apart from her concluding point, that a dash of pessimism builds in preparation in the form of conditions, caveats and thus greater durability, I would add it also matches up better to how life actually is (since the universe is indifferent to us), fosters self-reliance (because the universe is indifferent to us), and facilitates greater empathy in personal relationships (because we are tooled up to acknowledge inevitable interpersonal difficulties). Since last fortnight, my “all good” friend replied that he has come more my way over the years, because it made him professionally and personally more effective, and I admitted to moving a good deal his way too, away from assuming things will go bad. Such thinking starts as an unrealistic assumption, but undeniably tends to self-fulfill.

This is where Dysatisfunctional.com advocates a middle ground I’d like to call “critical optimism”. It builds in the healthy benefits of optimism, while shedding the narrow self-blinding that tends to accompany positive thinking. It relies on an ever-critical degree of questioning, without running too far into despair. There are good reasons why both tendencies are linked to these bad behaviours, and critical optimism takes considerable self-discipline, and also energy, to maintain. Limited resources is why we all pull shit when we should know better. Implementing critical optimism will necessarily be imperfect, but that is an assumed part of its strategy.

When Buddhists meditate, they seek to quieten the mind, to block out all conscious ramblings, be they selfish or selfless, trivial or some raison d’être. Every effort is made to return to the most fundamental cornerstones of living: breath, sensation, and the passing of time. Importantly, they count on their attentions straying; the task is to return to the practice. Critical optimism works the same way: thinking positively need not deny inevitable failings, and your failings need not deny the next positive experience.

Bear this in mind, and critical optimism will stop you getting ahead of yourself when things start going well, while also developing a different kind of confidence that comes from training your critical eye, especially in sticky situations, (even those of your own making). In this way, critical optimism has the potential to engender a kind of gracious self-worth, or arrogant humility, depending, of course, on how you see it.

Seeking Compromise, Part One: optimism vs. cynicism

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“Doing whatever it takes to be perpetually motivated and optimistic is psychopathic”

The last two posts here at Dysatisfunctional.com have addressed social dysatisfunction owing to a couple of national holiday themes, but today we refocus on personal and interpersonal dysatisfunction, as we assess optimism and cynicism. I wanted to talk about compromise today, but it’s important to first look at some of the pros and cons of how we orient ourselves to an imperfect world, imperfect neighbours, and imperfect selves. The post is a day late, too, so compromise is all between the lines anyhow.

I used to have a recurring dialogue with an excellent friend of mine: he would say with a grin and maybe something stuck to his lip/face, “I’m aaall good,” “Last night was aaaall good,” “This burger is aaaaaall good,” and I would say, often without consciously deciding to, “Well… nothing is ALL good. Mostly? OK. Nearly everything? Rarely. But never ALL as in 100% good,” and make a wiping motion to help him address the facial interloper.

After all, unknown pathogens were waging biological warfare in my friend’s body as he misspoke. The night before was not good for everyone, since that girl was dancing with him at the expense of at least one disgruntled ex. It couldn’t even be all good for himself—it’s more accurate to say that the systematic demolition of neurons via alcohol and whatever else was “worth it” or otherwise worthwhile, which are totally different concepts of goodness. The burger, most definitely, cannot be all good: industrial food production in relation to human health and global ecology make that impossible—even a cow’s fart is a calculation of means and ends (usually by humans, bovine thought processes notwithstanding).

The “all good” exchange was sometimes funny, depending on how I justified my interregnum, and on how well my friend countered, but it wasn’t exactly a running joke, since neither of us was kidding. This ritualistic exchange was a fair metonym of our personalities at the time, and perhaps still is. Over time I would just have to say, “Well…” and my pal would bunch his lips and nod what was probably a mix of nominal assent for the technicality, combined with respectful disagreement with my world view and overall strategy for living.

I must admit, being optimistic really brings me down. “Hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something,” they call it. And I’ve tried it—forced nights out to break the spell, cheerful dinners I had no reason to think could go well, or all my team sports/the occasional street fight. When I try unbridled optimism, something gnaws away in my sub-conscious processes, like I’ve gone on holiday with the gas element on, or forgotten to make arrangements for the plant, pet, child or parent in my care. Something that will come back to bite me. And it always does. Some of you will share this nagging wariness for unbridled optimism, while others will shake your heads and point out the folly of self-fulfilling prophecies. You latter folks will be happy to read that I share your, erm, doubts, on this point. Feeling cynical, wary, suspicious, or just plain bad has many negative health effects, beyond question, and lowers quality of life, almost by definition.

Far from arguing against these ill effects, I can only confirm that I find them… accurate. It would be easy to label cynicism then, as the poor-to-do, less successful sibling by contrast, and maybe that’s so, but first we should ask if there are any ill effects resulting from optimism. Philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s optimism argued that God necessarily created the best of all possible worlds. Our Easter post identified how faith in a benevolent universe might be irrational and plain wrong, but probably paid off in terms of physical and emotional health. So optimism’s first casualty might be the truth, if Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup thinks we can handle it.

Can you handle the truth of advertising creatives?

It seems that if we’re to assess the respective truth claims of optimism and cynicism, we should ask: is the world essentially benevolent, malignant, or a mix of good and bad? The dysatisfunctional answer has to be that things are both good and bad at once, except for when things are neither good nor bad. The empirical way to fit the world to our perceptions suggests that we might feel hopeful in positive situations, and doubtful in negative situations, but actually the reverse is more helpful: hope is needed when things are bad, while in good times we should guard against complacency. So as with faith, what is useful might not correlate to what is true, even when it brings its own self-fulfilling prophecies.

This seems cool and stupidly obvious at once

In addition, this question of utility assumes quite a lot of control over our emotions, personality and general disposition. Such ideas are the foundations of modern psychological therapy, self-help, goal-setting motivational industries, New Age faith industries, and there’s a lot of milk in these cow$. I’ll throw down on these money-changers another time. For now, while we can change much about ourselves with the right dedication, motivation, patience and practical tools, I’d like to suggest that talking ourselves into 100% optimism might not be as healthy as you’d prefer to believe.

Optimism usually entails discomfort at any threat to a sunny disposition. One way to deal with  hardship is to minimise it, or better still, pretend it does not exist. Negative effects can be contained, blamed on something unrelated, or reinterpreted in a positive light. This can keep us motivated about improvement, achievement, and pursuing some concept of good. The upsides to a train wreck: practical experience and a sense of teamwork for emergency services, personal development for everyone involved including their families and friends, a turning point for the hitherto discontented and half-arsed, inadvertent euthanasia for the already infirmed, reduction in human overpopulation problem, to name a few.

The last time you successfully transformed a potential problem into a motivational plus was probably a decent mental victory for you, but can you recall the last time you had to deal with someone else who did this? Instant nightmare. Everything shoveled under the rug; all the important stuff; all the keys to problem-solving, including the primary acknowledgement of the problem itself. Doing whatever it takes to be perpetually motivated and optimistic is psychopathic, and your loved ones will eventually notice. Optimism can create a deep interpersonal discord, a social alienation the optimist might never be aware of. And even if they were aware, by virtue of optimistic procedures, they wouldn’t be, and this is what makes it completely insane.

None of us know what we don’t know—Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous “unknown unknowns,” but some of us are trying harder than others. It’s all about degree, to be fair, but we all know people for whom this kind of minimisation or elision is their signature go-to move. These people are high-performance authors of widespread dysatisfunction, mobile human catastrophe volcanoes. Don’t believe the sheen of functionality, the good night’s sleep, the ability to compartmentalise any problem—it only appears handy in the beginning, or in war…

Optimism meets amorality: bad combination

I don’t care if optimists are wrong; doesn’t faze me. The systematic denial and minimisation of all the world’s problems, on the other hand, is a terror to be fought tooth and claw. Even for more moderate optimists, we know that folks can identify all sorts of problems in the world, their relationships, even themselves, and yet the hardest faults to see are the biggest and gnarliest and most impactful of them all. This is where cynicism, suspicion and a critical eye become virtuous. Earlier, I said cynicism lowers quality of life almost by definition. Almost, because who said quality of life should be solely defined by positive experiences? Tragedy is meaningful, educational and redemptive, and for these reasons should not be minimised or elided. The critical perspective that accompanies the cynic is valuable when tempered, and that caveat should not be… minimised.

Next week we’ll  start with cynicism and move toward compromise, as we look at the upsides to downsides, fun break-up inversions, some shit about Buddhism, and introduce Dysatisfunctional.com’s mutant hybrid: critical optimism.

Until then, if you can’t be good, be well.