Someone whom I knew for a short while in my life, once commented that I wasn't as optimistic as they had thought I was when they first met me. For someone who doesn't place much weight on the opinions of others about myself, this comment carved very deeply into my understanding of who I am.
I had never been anything but my true, blue self: a person I have come to understand and cultivate over time, such that on most days, I'm perfectly happy and comfortable in my own skin. I'm well aware of my proclivities, flaws, strengths and contributions. I was bothered to the point where it unhinged me and set me on a quest of trying to understand who I was. Had I got some part of myself wrong? Was I not who I thought I was? Had my circumstances turned me into someone difficult to be around?
I started asking myself irrational questions and started attributing all sorts of things to being optimistic. Perhaps if I was more optimistic I'd have more opportunities, or a book deal, or better shaped eyebrows. It was a rabbit hole I have never been down.
So, as is my default, I started to take notes and to read and to try and understand where these thoughts were coming from. What is our obsession with optimism? Why do we devalue people who prefer a rainy day to those who bask in the eternally sunny days of summer?
First, some definitions. In the world of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman (who I have a major intellectual crush on), is a juggernaut. He is the pioneer of the field which explores the link between positivity or optimism and a variety of characteristics in life, from well-being and health, to resilience and problem-solving to relationships.
According to Seligman, optimists view negative events as temporary, not pervasive, and attributed to events outside of themselves. Whereas, pessimists view negative events as pervasive, constant and their own fault. These are known as the explanatory styles within each domain. It's how we see the world, how we think of it in relation to ourselves, and the relative power and control that we hold over the ability to change those events.
We all fall on a spectrum between these two very extreme explanatory styles and perspectives. We all know people who are eternal optimists and are unshaken by what can by consensus be seen as traumatic events. Think of Viktor Frankl, the holocaust survivor and famous psychologist who explores the area of meaningfulness of life. We need only think of Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh to get an idea of what pessimism is (I think he's just a bit misunderstood; you might disagree).
There is something to be said about a tempered perspective. I don't like to think of the two extremes in isolation. There is certainly a propensity to go toward one or the other, but by and large, we discount the people who tend to be middle of the road. We write articles like this one, which equate realism with average, run-of-the-mill and even mediocre. We equate it with the inability to think big or creatively.
I would like to argue that being a realist is a wholesome and accumulated view, taken over time, through many events that inform our relationship with this world, with ourselves and with each other. Being a realist is about entertaining the very possibility that things could both turn out better than and worse than expected. It's not to bum anyone out or to give false hope, but to be perfectly honest that we entertain a world full of chaos.
Most of the realists I know are problem-solvers. They have many, many contingency plans. A pessimist might say they hope for the best and prepare for the worst. I like to think of it as back-pocketing an inevitability without placing it on the table.
Being a realist doesn't preclude you from dreaming big dreams and supporting those who have them. I'll admit to being the first one excited when a loved one ventures out into this wide world with a new endeavour. But it does give you the accumulated wisdom that the law of averages might preside over these dreams. That you might just make it, or that you might have to take a detour. No matter. We'll help you. We've got a map.
Well-placed hope is a card that most realists will have. Just as a scientist would be remiss if they conducted one experiment and claimed that it was applicable to everyone everyone forever, realists use reality, real life to know that overall things turn out, but they show their own idiosyncrasies along the way, and that uncertainty can have very real effects.
Realism is a place of wisdom. I have always thought of it this way. It aligns with who I am. It comes with understanding that gratitude is necessary for the good things that we have and the lessons that we learn. It comes from the wisdom that we are no different from each other in our hopes, dreams and wishes, and that it's fully possible to support something until a time where it might be much bigger than you are in either direction. It is the wisdom to walk away when necessary and to hang on when possible.
Let's credit the realists in our lives, not as trepidatious and risk averse, but as informed and balanced. We have a map. We'll always have it whether we need it or not.
My favourite reads on the topic:
On being too much for ourselves - Brainpicker
On How to Disagree - The Book of Life
Stumbling on Happiness - Daniel Gilbert