Optimism is realism: Where’s your focus?

Estimated reading time 11 mins.

Part of the satisfaction I get from my work as the teacher of a Korean university English conversation class is sharing and discussing ideas I care about with young people. For some material, I often take an article, talk, or podcast I like and present it to students in the clearest way they can consume it, given their English proficiency levels and other factors. We might simply read the article or, more often, I might create a Prezi presentation and give a mini-lecture summarizing the material in understandable terms at an appropriate pace before we discuss the ideas.

Preparing one such lesson, I recently re-listened to a Human Flourishing Podcast episode titled, “Cultivating Appreciation.” In it, host Alex Epstein recounts his experiences with a trolley and Uber driver, respectively, and was struck at how both expressed through action and in words great joy and appreciation for their work and the environments in which they get to perform it. Alex goes on to say that he was struck by this mental approach, highlighting how what they chose to focus on shaped their experience of it. There are further valuable points made in the episode, but for this article, I only intend to piggyback on it up to here.

Curb my enthusiasm?

While Alex mentions that cultivating appreciation is a habit he has not yet mastered, it occurred to me right away that I was, if not a master, then very good at it. I often remark to my wife out of nowhere how much I like the arrangement of a room in our house, or the current flowers we have, or some other little detail about something going on in our lives. This is received with something akin to a smiling eye roll, a sigh, in a kind of “Here we go…” attitude, and with the sarcasm I know I’ve opened myself to: “Why don’t you tell me what you don’t like?”

But it’s true! I just am so pleased with what I have going on all the time. I say similar things in regard to the wider context of our life, constantly telling her how happy I am with my work, my health, our relationship, where we live, etc. I really do appreciate how good I’ve got it.

I also appreciate how good we’ve all got it on a more global level. One unit in my English conversation class is entitled, “Life is Good,” and in it, we compare life in the past, including even very recently, to how we live today. Things are moving quickly, and we all—those of us in freer, more industrial societies—are way richer and with more opportunities than our predecessors, better off by countless metrics. (No doubt, many individuals have tragedy and hardship befall them through no fault of their own, but I’m speaking generally.)

Today, however, such optimism is often taken for naivete. Idealism is derided as childish, with the mark of maturity being cynicism. It seems that to be intellectual and “deep” is to be pessimistic about the state of the world and life in general.

But whether in one’s personal life or on the societal level, does choosing to focus on the positive aspects project a superficial and non-serious attitude to life when there are so many weighty issues to deal with? Does focusing on one thing entail the evasion of all other things? What is a rational approach to assessing and experiencing the circumstances of one’s life?

Living the dream

When I came to teach English in a typical private academy in Korea in 2002, I took extra teaching work anywhere I could get it. One gig had me go to a woman’s home, where she had one room set up as a full classroom with desks and chairs. I saw from 5-10 kids in there, and I thought that this was some kind of fantasy (for the woman!). ‘This is the dream,’ I thought. Having kids come right to your home like a mini-school!

For many people, working from home is the dream. Well, back in 2012, the first two students came to our previous small home, and my wife and I have since had a steady stream of cherished students in and out of our home to this day. Of course, for me, this is outside of my university classes, but for my wife, her home is her workplace. We’re living the dream!

And speaking of my university classes, my latest home, and my wife, these also were all previous fantasies to me.

The university gig is coveted among English teachers in Korea. The working hours, the holidays(!), and I get to create all my own material, discussing topics I’m interested in with young adults. I’ve been living this dream for the past 12 years.

When my wife and I moved into our first small home in 2009, I thought it was such an upgrade from where I used to live. I went on all the time how pleased I was. Of course, that wore off a bit, and when I had dinner in a friend’s slightly bigger apartment just down the street, I started thinking about how great it would be to live there. I thought that I could enjoy every aspect of living better from and within that kind of space and the environment we could create with it. My wife and I now live in an identical unit in that very building, and it’s a true dream.

When I was first chasing my wife back in 2007, I thought that nothing else could be wrong or unpleasant in my life, if only I had her. Anguish and misery without, fulfillment and elation with. By 2009: check that.

So, I’ve got my dream work situation, my dream home, my dream girl: I’m living the dream! Really living it!

And so you might think, “Okay, well, if I had all that I had wanted like that, it would be easier to be optimistic. Sounds good for you.”

Does it? Because sometimes I forget. I’ve got new dreams now. I’m constantly looking forward to what we might have in the future, and with that, I sometimes lose focus of where I am now. But that’s just it. If I’m to realize any of the things I want in the future, I obviously must envision them and be aware of them. But at the same time, if I only maintain my focus on the things I don’t have, then I will never experience the having of the things I have achieved. Rather, then, by choosing to focus on what I do have, I live and revel in the dream.

A key to happiness

At the top of the sidebar on this website, one can see a dictionary definition of eudaimonia—or “human flourishing”—an integrated concept which subsumes happiness, health, and prosperity. With an exclusive focus on future goals, one might achieve health (physical health anyway) and one might achieve material wealth or prosperity. But one cannot achieve happiness. Happiness is an emotional state of contentment. By definition, one must be aware of one’s success, health, wealth, good fortune, etc. if one is to enjoy the resulting emotion. One must acknowledge or appreciate the fact that one has these things. If your focus is elsewhere—on the negative present or even the positive future (“I’ll be happy and contented when…”), you will never be happy. So while I maintain that an authentic and earned self-esteem is the prerequisite and foundation for happiness, it can never be fully experienced unless we are aware that we have achieved something. Appreciation is the final and necessary key.

I have to remember this sometimes. I think and speak of the kind of home I want in the future and how awesome it will be to live there, how great it will be when we no longer have to teach kids in our home for a living (doing other, more rewarding and liberating kinds of work), the next car I’ll have and what an upgrade in luxury and quality of life that will entail, not to mention how the coming waves of technology are going to lift us to greater heights of wealth than any human has enjoyed in history, even if we only ever work at the level we do now. I often exclaim enthusiastically to my wife: “It’s gonna be so awesome when we’re 50!”

But I know that now is awesome, too. If I showed the Matthew from five years ago what I have now and asked him what it would mean to him, he would think it life-changing and somewhere very far from where he was—some kind of dream. And he’d be right. “If only I had the car…that I do right now!” Focus on the fact that I do have it. Appreciate it. Experience the happiness such appreciation brings.

One last example will help drive the point home. Two years ago, if I saw my body fat at 14kgs, I was feeling great about myself. Last year, if it was 11kgs, I would be skipping home, thinking I had a green light for any kind of guilt-free indulgence. Today, I’m constantly looking to break into 7kgs, and if I see it hit the high 8s on a day, I feel a little anxious and unsatisfied. That is until I remind myself where to put my focus, to appreciate the fact that my current body shape is the dream of my previous self and that I ought to be bouncing off the walls with triumph and pride. And then I do feel great about it. By appreciating the fact of my achievement and current condition, I allow myself to experience the joy of successful living.

“I’m not a pessimist. I’m a realist.”

“Okay, I get it already. But I can’t ignore the negative things going on in the world and in my life. I’m not really a pessimist. I’m just a realist.”

The implication here is that to be optimistic is to irrationally evade the real risks, threats, and misfortune which no doubt exist in the world and in one’s own life. But to be optimistic or pessimistic is not a matter of facts but of focus. It is a chosen method of operating or fundamental approach to living. And while both the positive and negative do exist, to focus on one thing does not mean that one ignores or is unaware of the rest of what one doesn’t focus on. You just put it in its proper place.

So what is its proper place?

If you’re a realist, you look at the evidence and make conclusions based thereupon. And looking at the evidence, you can see that (as I always say on this blog and to students and everywhere) “Life is Good.” No doubt much is wanting in terms of the state of the world (and I promote rational and practical philosophy in an effort to affect positive change), but there is great reason for optimism. One only has to look at the stories published every day on humanprogress.org, for instance, to see the reality of the remarkably positive state of human life from a global perspective.

You can also look at your own life—seriously and in full context. Is disaster and suffering really the norm or the exception? To this, I refer to Ayn Rand from her article, “The Ethics of Emergencies” in The Virtue of Selfishness:

And the simplest empirical refutation of that metaphysics—as evidence that the material universe is not inimical to man and that catastrophes are the exception, not the rule of his existence–observe the fortunes made by insurance companies (p.49).

Follow it logically. If calamity were the norm—in an individual’s life or in society at large—it wouldn’t be long before that individual or any of us didn’t exist anymore.

Yes, you can see all that misery, etc. But why should the fact that misery exists make it the focus of your attention, such that you adopt a pessimistic perspective on life? Given that the positive outweighs the negative, I submit that it is more irrational and neurotic to be a pessimist than it is to be an optimist. Even Louis C.K. (yes, Louis!) recognized the contradiction in the state of the world and people’s position in regard to it in his bewildered comment a few years ago: “Everything is amazing, and no one’s happy.” That sounds more like a psychological issue than it does a conclusion based on an objective assessment of reality.

Optimism is a rational M.O.

I’m at once an optimist and a realist. I’m an optimist because I’m a strict, unemotional, hard-core realist. Optimism is simply more congruent with reality. But more, I just choose to focus on the positive. Even in the face of true adversity or even tragedy, so long as one is living, one can choose upon what to place one’s focus. And the only way to affect positive change is to focus on what is not dead and gone and to build upon it. Of what use is pessimism but an excuse to wallow in resignation and submission?

But more than a method of overcoming hardship, it is a rational method for experiencing the joy of living. The trolley and Uber drivers in Alex’s anecdotes live similar lives to many others, but the cheerful and heartening way in which they experience their lives is not the result of those circumstances, but rather of their evaluation—their appreciation—of those circumstances, and of where they place their focus. And that placement of focus is a choice, one which we all have the free will to apply.

I approach my own life with a focus on what’s good, and for that, I bask in the richness of what I have already achieved while using it as fuel to propel me toward ever-greater heights of successful living. I appeal to you to appreciate what you have in your own life and allow the M.O. of optimism to permeate even the smallest moments. Life is good. Recognize it. Appreciate it. Revel in it.

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