Optimism with its eyes open

The words “skeptical” and “optimistic” aren’t usually used to describe the same person. Most of us probably see those two characteristics as fundamentally different. Optimism brings to mind ideas about positive thinking and pep talks, whereas skeptics are often seen as intellectual party-poopers. “Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied,” said J. S. Mill, implying a dichotomy that we tend to take for granted.

While this distinction makes sense in terms of rational inquiry — a curious person is never “satisfied” with half-baked explanations — it needn’t apply to our overall life satisfaction. In fact, not only is optimism compatible with skepticism, it makes for a winning combination. To see this, let’s look at three different attitudes. I’ll call them blind optimism, blind pessimism, and skeptical optimism.

Blind optimism

The image of the insufferable optimist — someone who is irritatingly cheery, who seems unable to commiserate or criticise, and who naively disregards risk — is the result of uncritical optimism. These people seem to embody the notion that ignorance is bliss, like Mill’s satisfied fool. But watch them over time, and you will likely find that that ignorance has caught up with them.

For example, someone like this might quit their job to start a business but refuse to admit their product isn’t viable, convincing themselves that things will eventually work out as their capital slowly dries up. If they constantly set themselves (and their loved ones) up for failure this way, it’s going to be hard to maintain a sense of fulfilment in the long term. They won’t become depressed, but they will be forced to settle for much less than they are capable of, and the people around them will not appreciate it.

At root, the problem is that blind optimists don’t seem to be able to entertain the possibility that they are wrong. They’re good at telling themselves everything will be fine, but they never stop to look for potential problems that could undermine that outcome. Maybe it’s an undeveloped habit, or maybe the discomfort of a negative image of the future is too much to bear. In either case, the result is needless suffering that could have been avoided.

Blind pessimism

More common than blind optimists are their pessimist counterparts. The blind optimist may end up an unsatisfied fool, but the fate of the blind pessimist is far worse. In his book Learned Optimism (2006), the depression researcher Martin Seligman argues that a pessimistic outlook, or “explanatory style,” is a major contributing factor to unipolar depression.

The pessimist’s mistake is the same as that of optimists: they never doubt their own take on things. In this case, though, their take on things is unfavourable. According to Seligman, pessimists tend to explain negative life events to themselves as being personal (I’m unlovable), permanent (I’m never going to find anybody), and pervasive (Women/men hate me). When adversity strikes, someone with this attitude is far more likely to come face to face with the black dog.

These unreasonable interpretations can continue unchallenged for years, even though we may be skeptical of the same claims coming from someone else. Seligman writes:

What we say to ourselves when we face a setback can be just as baseless as the ravings of a jealous rival. Our reflexive explanations are usually distortions. They are mere bad habits of thought produced by unpleasant experiences in the past—by childhood conflicts, by strict parents, by an overly critical Little League coach, by a big sister’s jealousy. But because they seem to issue from ourselves, we treat them as gospel. They are merely beliefs, however. And just believing something doesn’t make it so.

Unfortunately, people who recognise this and look for a way out often settle for a less-than-skeptical approach. One such approach is the technique known in the New Age movement as “affirmations,” self-pep-talks which are repeated daily or hourly in an effort to bring about a change of mindset. Here are some real examples I found:

  • I am protected and provided for in all ways.
  • Money comes to me easily and effortlessly.
  • I am unlimited — all things are possible.

Hearing these, a skeptic might argue: wait a minute, nobody is protected and provided for in all ways; nobody is “unlimited,” given that we all have responsibilities and other limitations; the path from poverty to wealth is almost never easy and effortless. This futile tactic attempts to counteract an unreasonably negative outlook with an unreasonably positive one, fighting blind pessimism with blind optimism. The difference between the hapless, affirmation-chanting New Ager and the true blind optimist is that the former uses such lines to deceive themselves about how they really feel while the latter actually believes them; in both cases, it is the fact that they are out of touch with reality that causes problems.

Skeptical optimism

The problem with the “positive thinking” approach is that it offers no strategy for negatives, which are the pessimist’s weak point:

We have found that merely repeating positive statements to yourself does not raise mood or achievement very much, if at all. It is how you cope with negative statements that has an effect.

Much better, then, to have a kind of optimism that can admit when there’s a problem without getting dramatic about it. Fortunately, it seems that this habit can be acquired without having to resort to self-deception. The way that a pessimist can become a skeptical optimist is by actively disputing their own reactions to bad events in the same way that a skeptic disputes an unreasonable truth claim. This overlapping of optimism and skepticism is the sweet spot. Seligman writes:

Usually the negative beliefs that follow adversity are inaccurate. Most people catastrophize: From all the potential causes, they select the one with the direst implications. One of your most effective techniques in disputation will be to search for evidence pointing to the distortions in your catastrophic explanations. Most of the time you will have reality on your side.

Learned optimism works not through an unjustifiable positivity about the world but through the power of “non-negative” thinking.

In other words, it’s not the rose-coloured glasses that we need, but the magnifying glass. Search for the evidence that contradicts your pessimistic mind chatter, and you release yourself from its grip.

(This focus on developing realistic responses to self-talk became the basis of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). Seligman’s work contributed greatly to it.)

To dispute our own pessimistic interpretations, a certain degree of mindfulness is necessary. Once we’re able to pause and reflect, we can start to find holes in our own arguments. Since pessimists tend to interpret negative events as personal, permanent and pervasive, disputing those beliefs will usually result in an interpretation that is impersonal (if she doesn’t like me, that’s her problem), temporary (it didn’t work out this time, but next time it might), and specific (she wasn’t interested in a relationship, but others would be). This is the optimistic interpretation. Do this without thinking, and you become a blind optimist; do it when there’s good evidence, and you become a skeptical one.

What we want is not blind optimism but flexible optimism—optimism with its eyes open. We must be able to use pessimism’s keen sense of reality when we need it, but without having to dwell in its dark shadows.

It turns out that believing your own bullshit can be just as harmful in the emotional realm as in the intellectual. The same lack of skepticism can lead to both dogmatism and depression. But if you’re willing to admit the possibility of being wrong, perhaps you can avoid both.