Opti-Pessimism

I was struck this week by the Sunday Parade’s “Why Optimism is Powerful Medicine,” another in a long line of trendy articles on the healthy aspects of positive thinking. And, while I agree that habitual pessimism can increase stress and contribute to depression, it has occurred to me that learned optimism also has its dangers.

Who is attracted to learned optimism? Pessimists. Born optimists rarely consider the implications one way or another. By his own admission, Dr. Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests in his research regarding optimism and pessimism that pessimists are usually right.

So what does this mean for critical thinkers? That we are right most of the time? So how do we reconcile that we are right and yet, when we state our concerns, we’re confronted with “that’s just the glass is half-full thinking?” We’ve been chided for our pessimism as if we have a problem and our wiring is faulty. We’ve gone about trying to think differently – putting an optimistic spin on every situation.

Is it possible that the glass is half-empty and to deal with the problem as if the glass is full is the wrong way to arrive at optimal outcomes, too.

We’re gifted, we pessimists. And while it could be argued that a strictly pessimistic view isn’t going to get us where we want to be, I’d like to suggest that a strictly optimistic view isn’t going to get us there either.

As a writer and strategist for Wax, I have been blessed to interview many very successful – and, on the surface, what appear to be – optimists like Steve Forbes, Jane Seymore and Jack LaLanne, to name a few. I’ve also interviewed Tom Wilson (president of Allstate) and a host of very successful and high-ranking CEOs and business people – all with one thing in common – they are extremely successful and they appear to be very optimistic.

But what constitutes real success? Perhaps the truly successful – business people who would never allow the current state of the economy and the requisite meltdown – have the forethought to recognize long-term results of their immediate decisions beyond their noses. They might not be pessimists, but they can actively listen to the down side of any equation or situation, implement solutions in a positive way, and end up on the successful side of their thoughtful decision making. Let’s call them opti-pessimists.

Extreme optimists also muddy the waters, see things from their own and immediate perspectives, and ultimately make decisions for instant results, which more times than not land them personally in a positive realm – but with little regard for the big picture. We’ve all heard the stories. CEOs walking away with huge monetary packages while the individuals working for their companies and investors lose everything.

Is this really a positive outcome? For them personally, maybe. But the truly positive does not reside in wealth for the few at the cost of poverty for the many. An optimistic outcome is better lives for all – and a critical evaluation of the ‘what-ifs’ is the only real solution for a crippled world economy. We thought leaders must adopt a critical view. We must see that the glass is half-empty before we can ever begin to fill it. In our case, as citizens of the United States and the world, we absolutely must see that the glass is nearly empty in a realistic way before we can ever seek the means for filling it.

While our current president rode a wave of optimism into the White House, many of us were hopeful of the outcome for the economy, the country and the world. We Americans are enamored by optimists. We want to be optimistic. Is it hope that will fulfill our destiny – a rebound of our economy and a tidal wave of prosperity? No. We require thoughtful leadership, an army of opti-pessimists, willing to listen to the naysayers and parlay their cautionary tales into solutions – not based in optimism – but based in pragmatism.

I suggest that we all adopt an opti-pessimistic view of the world – a view based on a realistic evaluation of our own lives and the rest of the world’s inhabitants in order to fill it with the positive outcomes we want for ourselves, the success for our own businesses and a flourishing global economy.

– Terri Smith