As a philosophy of life, optimism is a choice one makes in response to uncontrollable circumstances.
The world isn’t coming to an end, contrary to what you may have heard. But the media’s near-exclusive focus on conflict and disaster means that the progress and everyday acts of brilliance taking place across the globe go unnoticed. In The Intelligent Optimist’s Guide to Life (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2014), Jurriaan Kamp shows that optimism — intelligent optimism, not a rose-colored-glasses brand of wishful thinking — is good for not only your mind but your body too. The following excerpt comes from chapter 1, “The Best Way to Live.”
In high school, my week revolved around the field hockey game on Saturday. Back then, we still played on real grass. Hence, as the week progressed, a striking parallel arose between my mood and darkening skies. Too much rain would force the game to be canceled, which routinely happened in the fall and winter. My grumbling started well in advance. If it were raining cats and dogs on a Friday afternoon, my dear mother would try to cheer me up by looking out the window and pointing at a random piece of sky. “Look,” she’d exclaim, “it’s already clearing up over there!”
That unfounded optimism always infuriated me.
Yet she had a point. After the rain there will always be sunshine. Yes, bad things happen. But it is our choice to accept the rain and look beyond it to the coming sunshine. We create pessimism by our focus on the bad. At the same time we create optimism by focusing on the good. And, as we shall see, optimism is a much more rewarding strategy.
Optimism doesn’t mean denying reality. According to the dictionary, the everyday meaning of optimism is “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something.” But the root of the word comes from Latin (optimum) and the more precise definition of optimism is “the doctrine that this world is the best of all possible worlds.”
Optimism is a fundamental attitude. It’s not an opinion about reality; it’s a starting point for dealing with reality. At every moment, you can decide that you’re in the best situation to handle a given challenge. That is optimism. Optimism is searching for the yes in every situation and finding it. Or as someone once aptly described that attitude: “If there’s no solution, then there’s no problem.”
“This pessimism is lying across modern civilization like some enormous fallen tree and somehow we’ve got to get a bulldozer and shift it out of the way,” said the English writer and “the first philosopher of optimism in European history” Colin Wilson.
According to Wilson, the roots of the pessimism epidemic go back to the Romantics of the early nineteenth century whose message was that humans could only briefly experience “exquisite happiness,” but it was not meant to be forever and life was supposed to be miserable. “Most people still don’t understand what has happened in Western culture over the past two centuries. How the long defeatist curve that originated in the early 19th century continues to cloud our way of thinking,” said Wilson.
Human beings have a unique capacity to find new answers through the expansion of their consciousness. That’s why optimism, the art of finding solutions, is a more logical way of life than the, in intellectual circles, still dominant—pessimistic—worldview that was “invented” by a few poets 200 years ago.
Life will inevitably deal us some bad hands from time to time. Life is not simple. That it should be is a contemporary misconception fed by modern consumerism, which offers a quick solution for every inconvenience. An increasing stream of gurus have extrapolated from that material prosperity to claim that life can be, should be, an effortless affair.
All those messages seem to have made us less of a match for life. Our ancestors trekked across the steppes and savannas. They knew they were continually in danger. They didn’t know life could be anything but challenging. Our reality consists of hospitals, insurance policies, and benefit payments when things go wrong. The welfare state has strongly influenced our expectations, but it still doesn’t preclude bad things from happening.
In 1978, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck wrote The Road Less Traveled. The book begins like this: “Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult—once we truly understand and accept it—then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
Every religion and philosophy of life teaches that the meaning of life lies in our responses to the challenges we encounter. Our life lessons are the essence of our existence. That’s why the way we face those lessons is so important. “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional,” Buddhists say. Optimism turns out to be the most promising and fulfilling strategy, because the optimist accepts reality and then does something about it.
In more and more environmental dialogues the word resilience begins to replace the word sustainability. Sustainability means keeping things intact. It means avoiding causing damage. It’s about preventing change. Sustainability is a static concept.
Resilience, though, is dynamic. “The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties,” says one definition. Resilience is part of ongoing change. The world today is not the same as the world of 5,000 years ago. Nor will the world of the future much resemble our current reality. That’s why sustainability is not a helpful concept in a world of continual and rapid change.
The same applies to our daily lives. They will never be sustainable in the static sense. We can only frustrate ourselves by not accepting the changes we cannot escape. That frustration is at the root of much pessimism. The optimist is resilient. She evolves with circumstances and times.
Bad days will come. But the point is, they will go as well. So the challenge is to go as untouched as possible through the bad days. That’s where resilience comes in. But untouched does not mean “disconnected.” Resilience means remaining part of the circumstances and adapting, taking the fact in, learning the lesson—understanding and accepting—and moving on.
The focus of the optimist is on the potential change. She embraces yes and fights against no. The optimist makes the conscious choice to endure in times of hardship. It is illuminating that the Chinese use the same character for endurance as for patience: the patience required to wait for the moment when you can once again act effectively. That wise patience is also evident in theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Optimism, persistence, and resilience go hand in hand. You can’t find answers or solutions if you aren’t prepared to keep searching and digging. At the same time, you can’t find them if you don’t first accept the truth at the deepest level. That’s often a painful process. Optimism isn’t always fun and happy.
You don’t want to sustain your life as it is; you want it to be resilient an adaptable to the ever-ongoing change around you.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Intelligent Optimist’s Guide to Life: How to Find Health and Success in a World That’s a Better Place Than You Think, by Jurriann Kamp and published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2014.