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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 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.