Estimated reading time 53 mins.
Note: I am not a philosopher or psychologist nor any kind of expert in either field. But that doesn’t disqualify the following hypothesis as haphazard or necessarily invalid. I say simply that it corresponds with my experience, organizing without contradiction the successes and failures I’ve observed in other people and in my own life. Each aspect of my life improves to the extent I apply this framework, and it falters to the extent I stray from it.
In spite of all that, please consider the following a hypothesis and not a definitive proclamation. The method itself demands that I never cease to revise and reorganize my ideas into clearer and more precise concepts as I take on challenges from others (and myself) and as I live and learn. But I’ve been living and learning for a long while, and in this first “essay,” it is the most comprehensive formulation I can make to date.
Optimism’s got a bad rap. It is associated with ignorance, naivety, and immaturity. A Morgan Housel article does well to highlight a few reasons why pessimism is sexy, but John Stuart Mill in any case identified the tendency over 150 years ago:
“I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs while others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”
An optimist is an adorable but pitiful child who expects the best in the world until such a sage elder (or harsh reality) snaps them out of their foolish, idealistic notions and expectations. The child is an adult now, properly cynical and “realistic.”
That view is not without foundation, however, as blind “optimists” exist, running amok with their…ignorance…naivety, and immaturity, serving to discredit any rationally positive approach to life and to bolster the reputation of the wise pessimist.
But this reputation is won only by default, in the absence of a sensible alternative. I propose, however, to articulate such an alternative in the form of objective optimism, unpacking it from association with the irrationality of mere fingers-crossed hopers. With this, I aim to put forth a positive and rational framework that can empower individuals to build an optimal, flourishing life for themselves while properly defaming the debilitating and destructive (and wholly unnecessary) outlook of pessimism and cynicism. We may all turn to something better than this default.
Moreover, I think the concepts of both optimism and pessimism are often defined or used either superficially or out of context. They are often taken to denote either a positive or negative assessment of some facts in reality in a given situation, e.g. “He is optimistic about the business plan,” or, “I have to admit I’m a bit pessimistic about our chances in this tournament with so many strong teams, but I wouldn’t say that to our players.” Such expressions amount to: “Weighing the relevant facts, I expect this particular venture will succeed or not.” In my view, while we may understand what a person means to say these things and it’s fine to use them this way in a narrow context, neither example tells us anything about whether a person is characteristically an optimist or pessimist or what those concepts even are.
Take the “glass half-full vs. half-empty” metaphor. Either view is a correct assessment of reality, so who’s the realist? I’ll discuss that more later, but this example helps illustrate for now that optimism versus pessimism is not a matter of making either a true or false positive or negative analysis of a given situation but that each designates a particular choice of focus. They are diametric fundamental approaches to life—and I think very literally that they are life and death alternatives.
So, what is Objective Optimism?
Objective optimism is the willful mindset or method applied toward optimizing results in a given context. To be objective means that one identifies and appreciates all facts, and then to be optimistic means that given the relevant facts, one chooses to focus on what one has to build upon in achieving one’s best possible results and not on what one lacks or what might thwart one’s goals. This approach is obviously distinct from pessimism, the mental method or tendency to focus on and/or inflate the unfavorable conditions one has to deal with and to expect failure. It is also distinct from subjective “optimism”, which cannot really be classified as optimism because by dropping objectivity and ignoring relevant facts, a subjectivist is sure not to achieve optimal results but certain failure. Such a mindset is often mistaken for optimism in that the person hopes for the best, but blind hope without cause in objective reality inevitably turns into uncertainty and fear—and ultimately pessimism—regardless of what subjective fancies one pretends to believe.
It may be pertinent to emphasize early that an objective optimist pursues the optimal result obtainable under any given conditions and operates this way whether said conditions are favorable or not. In this way, optimism is not necessarily expecting good results but taking action to pursue them regardless of the circumstances. And the only way to achieve any rational goal in reality is to be objective, not leaving any facts unidentified or unappreciated. One tries to gain as much context as possible and do one’s best with what one has to work with.
A subjective “optimist,” by contrast, does not look at facts but evades them and/or tries to invent them, and only hopes for the best, which again is why this approach is so often confused with optimism. Given, however, that objectivity is a precondition to successful action in reality, “objective” optimism is a redundancy which must be used to distinguish it from the irrationalist/subjectivist, while a subjective and irrational “optimist” is a contradiction in terms. As yet, however, I have no other term to describe such a person (cock-eyed dreamer?), and it will be helpful for now to view this approach as a misguided attempt at optimism, so we will proceed with that term for juxtaposition.
Applied at a deeper, metaphysical level, objective optimism (OO) is more broadly defined as a general attitude that the good ultimately predominates over evil in the world, that reality is objective and knowable, and that if its nature is “obeyed,” one’s goals are achievable in reality. This again is in stark opposition to pessimism, which attitude believes that evil and suffering predominate in the world and that one is mostly predestined to defeat. In this general approach to life, OO also stands in contrast to subjective “optimism” (SO), whose broader orientation is more inwardly-directed (i.e. subjective) and so leaves one with more of an uncertainty in regard to reality and with that, again, only blind faith to support one’s hopeful feelings. This uncertainty, we will see, ultimately leads such a person to the vague sense that evil is pervasive in spite of his sympathy to the good.
Conceptual clarity is the aim
While it is imperative to be clear and precise about what pessimism is and how it differs from OO, it is also crucial to distinguish SO from OO for reasons we will discuss later. Optimal living depends on good thinking, and good thinking depends on the quality of one’s concepts, so we must be vigilant in clearly defining and separating each mental method in our conceptual toolbox if we’re to have success in optimizing our own lives. The following table will serve as a summary of the comparative concepts, but I will then break down and briefly discuss the comparative points.
Don’t take it personally
I will not attempt to rebut every anticipated objection before we even begin, but I feel I must preempt and remove one idea that may make a person defensive from the start and so more resistant. Please note that any person may (and almost certainly does) hold at once some ideas or exhibit some behaviors ascribed to different mindsets. For instance, one might classify oneself as an objective optimist but display some of the characteristics of a pessimist. Or someone who identifies as a pessimist might say, “Yeah, I’ll admit that part, but I don’t think those things!” That this will be true doesn’t necessarily mean the classifications are mistaken. It means that one is mixed and would do better to become more integrated—integrated ideally, I of course submit, toward becoming an objective optimist.
I only say that some characteristics are muted or magnified in various people, but that any mindset applied consistently and to its logical extreme will result in said attitudes, emotions, results, etc. Almost no one is pure down the column of any of the categorized mental approaches, including myself. The idea, however, is that by organizing the concepts this way, I and anyone else may more deliberately adopt a consistently life-promoting approach on principle while recognizing and rejecting aspects of irrational and life-defeating approaches. One can strive to be an out-an-out Objective Optimist.
Objective Optimism at a glance
Table: Comparative mindsets (OO, Pessimism, and SO)
|Objective Optimism (OO)||Pessimism||Subjective “Optimism”(SO)|
|Metaphysics (view of and relationship to reality)|
|Reality-oriented (outward)||Self (inward) & others-oriented (if outward at all, then evasive)||Self (inward)-oriented|
|Good is predominant; evil is impotent||Evil is omnipotent||Good is weak in the face of evil|
|Epistemology (mental method)|
|Present + future focus||Present + past focus||Present + Past focus|
|Ethics (goal of life, guide to action)|
|Gaining values/ flourishing||Not losing values/ “survival” or “security”||Not losing values/ “survival” or “security”|
|Purpose||Lack of purpose||Lack of purpose|
|Control||Lack of control||Lack of control|
|Choice of focus|
|Abundance mindset||Scarcity mindset||Scarcity mindset|
|Focus on what one has||Focus on what one doesn’t have & what others have||Focus on what one doesn’t have & what others have|
|Appreciation||Take things for granted||Take things for granted|
|View of and attitude toward other people|
|“Life is good and I know it.”||“Life is doomed and I know it.”||“Life is good…isn’t it?!”|
|Practical and Emotional results|
Let’s break it down
Metaphysics (view of and relationship to reality)
|Reality-oriented (outward)||Self (inward)-oriented (if outward at all, then evasive)||Self (inward)-oriented|
|Good is predominant and potent; evil is impotent||Evil is omnipotent||Good is weak in the face of evil|
An OOist looks out at objective reality, including the nature of the world and his own nature. Such an objective outlook makes one more able to deal with reality and thus more convinced of the efficacy of the good. A pessimist looks inward at his feelings, and such irrationalism makes one unable to deal successfully with reality and thus causes fear about it. So when he does look at reality, he evades any evidence of the potency of the good in the world in order to rationalize his fear. The SOist also looks inward at his own subjective feelings, and although his are more hopeful, being evasive of what’s out there and thus uncertain, they nonetheless lead him to similar conclusions about reality and the respective power of good and evil.
It is important to note that introspection can be objective, so long as one observes one’s feelings impartially, seeking the causes of them. While one can be said to be “looking in,” one is really “looking out” in effect, with one’s consciousness and/or emotions as the object under observation and consideration. A pessimist or SOist takes his feelings for granted and attempts to shape reality to match them instead of vice versa, i.e. letting his detached observations about reality shape his ideas and feelings. This is what it means to be subjective and why it is an irrational (and inefficacious) method.
OO is, after all, a choice of focus, so it presupposes free will. And while pessimism can also be said to be a “choice,” it is a choice to indulge in beliefs based on subjective feelings. To “choose” to think one can have no power to affect positive change in the world is to submit to determinism. An SOist, while venturing to proclaim that he believes the good can prevail, is still doing so out of a blind faith, leaving it in the hands of providence to make his doubtful wishes a reality. The end of that road is the same as the pessimist.
Epistemology (mental method)
An OOist holds reason as an absolute, understanding that it is his only means of knowing reality and his means of survival and flourishing. To the extent he commands reason to guide him, he is more likely to succeed. Seeing that an unwavering commitment to objectivity and reason leads him to more progress, a virtuous circle is born.
Meanwhile, the pessimist, rather than face objective reality and allow himself to discover that he can be efficacious in the world, chooses instead to stay within himself, insisting that reality is as he has imagined it in his own mind, attempting to create it in effect (which is what subjectivism is). He will cling to any real negative events or ideas he can claim as evidence to justify his fears, usually taking them out of context to suit his predetermined views. These rationalizations will lead him further from reality, and thus cause more fear (as he becomes less and less able to deal with facts), creating a vicious circle of abandoning reality and reverting more inside himself—a circle spiraling more toward anxiety and neurosis.
The SOist is more hopeful from the start, but by disregarding reason and clinging to faith, his policy will in spite of his contrived enthusiasm lead him into the same cycle of pessimism, fear, and rationalization.
Let me be clear on what I mean by a rationalization, as it’s very central in distinguishing an objective approach from a subjective one. A rationalization is the application of reason apart from experience, i.e. objective reality. In this way, a rationalizer’s ideas may be expressed in rational terms and sound logical, but it is more like an “internal logic” of sorts. Divorced from perceivable facts in reality, however, they are no less irrational than truly fantastic ideas. Rationalization describes granting primacy to one’s subjective feelings and then finding reasons to validate them.
“Confidence goes a long way towards success.”
|Present + future focus||Present +past focus||Present + past focus|
In the Ken Burns’ documentary, The West, “Season 1 Episode 7“: The Geography of Hope, the opening narration is that of Lord James Bryce, who, with a group of other Europeans, visited the town of Bismarck, Dakota in September 1883, as the young settlement was laying the cornerstone of its capital. “Confidence goes a long way towards success. And the confidence of these Westerners is superb,” Lord Bryce begins.
What struck the Europeans most, he says, was the spot chosen for the capital. “It was not in the city, nor even on the skirts of the city. It was nearly a mile off, on the top of a hill on a brown and dusty prairie.” “Why here?” we asked. “Is it because you mean to enclose the building in a public park?” “By no means,” was the answer. “The capital is intended to be in the center of the city. It is in this direction that the city is to grow.”
“It is the same everywhere, from the Pacific to the Mississippi. Men seem to live in the future rather than the present. They see the country not merely as it is, but as it will be, 20, 50, 100 years hence.”-Lord James Bryce
Americans are well-known for their “can-do” optimism, especially in its founding years as it fought Revolutionary and Civil wars, industrialized its Northeastern region, and tamed its vast and various harsh Western lands to becoming the undisputed economic power of the world. And especially in contrast to and from the perspective of Europeans in general, who always report similar experiences and evaluations of Americans, this mental projection, while admirable, is still incredible to them.
Glory days (or safe ones)
Pessimists and SOs, meanwhile, live largely in the past because of a tendency to remember good things about the past while forgetting negative things, a phenomenon, Matt Ridley tells us, known as the “reminiscence bump.” Add this to what he terms “turning-point-itis,” a tendency to believe the future will not be good in spite of mostly consistent improvements in the past because we stand at a “turning point in history.” Even artists recognize this phenomenon. Musician Jeff Tweedy writes in Wilco’s “You Never Know“:
Come on, children,
You’re acting like children
Every generation thinks
It’s the end of the world
With such a view, it feels much more pleasant—and decidedly safer—to look back than to contemplate the future. And when optimists say that good things are possible if we enact such-and-such a course, a pessimist attempts to smear the evidence (and the credibility of the optimist) and grabs onto and promotes any rationalization he can to confirm his apprehension.
Optimism is optimizing what will be
Never speaking of any individual, European culture is on the whole much more pessimistic than American culture. And it is true that Europe has often played cynical sage to America’s enthusiastic child, Americans themselves having mostly regarded Europe as a continent of sophistication and maturity, European intellectuals as authorities, and importing much of their philosophy over the past 150 years or so. But observe where and during what period the most astounding progress in human history was made, and we may conclude which M.O. is most practical in commanding reality—either for a nation or an individual.
Ethics (goal of life, guide to action)
|Gaining values/ flourishing||Not losing values/ “survival” or “security”|| Not losing values/ |
“survival” or “security”
“You seek escape from pain. We seek the achievement of happiness. You exist for the sake of avoiding punishment. We exist for the sake of earning rewards. Threats will not make us function; fear is not our incentive. It is not death that we wish to avoid, but life that we wish to live. You, who have lost the concept of the difference, you who claim that fear and joy are incentives of equal power—and secretly add that fear is the more “practical”—you do not wish to live, and only fear of death still holds you to the existence you have damned.”Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual, p.135
|Purpose||Lack of purpose||Lack of purpose|
|Control||Lack of control||Lack of control|
If one is scared to move forward, believing that one lacks control in regard to outcomes and is predetermined to failure, one feels secure in stagnation. But as said above, “staying put” is not a purpose nor a practical motivating goal, and without such a purpose, self-esteem is impossible. With self-doubt at the center of one’s being, one shirks responsibility, becoming passive and reactive to life. One feels like a victim because one is, in effect, a victim. But this is only a chosen status.
Here once again, the SOist mirrors the pessimist despite his apparent buoyancy. It goes back to the subjective nature of his outlook, in that by not truly looking outward and instead starting from his inward faith in the good, he gives up control over the objective world, and with that, he gives up responsibility and any deliberate or proactive process. Unable to earn self-esteem this way, he appeals to pity for himself and those who just want the best for everyone—without looking for causes. And in the face of an OOist’s insistence that things are and can be good if we’d only look out and see—this being demanding intellectual work—the SOist joins the pessimist in accepting any claim which seems to justify his victimhood.
It is the OOist who takes responsibility for his own life, moving deliberately and proactively forward with purpose toward his goal, over which he understands he has control. Indeed, there are uncertain factors in life, but an OOist focuses only on that over which he does have control, seeing no importance in the random, and takes no undue personal blame for things over which he doesn’t have control.
Choice of focus
|Abundance mindset||Scarcity mindset||Scarcity mindset|
|Focus on what one has||Focus on what one doesn’t have & what others have||Focus on what one doesn’t have & what others have|
|Appreciation||Take things for granted||Take things for granted|
The difference between OO, pessimism, and SO is essentially a choice of focus and as such, the above is perhaps the most important issue in the table. Choosing to focus on and appreciate what one has can lead to the development of all other characteristics listed in the OO column. Likewise, focusing on the emptiness or lack in one’s life—or on what others have—while taking things for granted, serves to confirm the idea of scarcity in the world and in one’s life, as well as to confirm that one is powerless to affect positive change in one’s life, that one is inefficacious in regard to outcomes—and so why bother?
Abundance versus scarcity: brush over
Much has been written in regard to the abundance versus scarcity mindset, and it is in itself worthy of a book of discussion. For all it scope, however, I nonetheless subsume it under the broader comparative mindsets of OO, pessimism, and SO. To see life as abundant is an optimistic attitude, while seeing it as scarce is an expression and consequence of a pessimistic view. In my future work and thinking, I want to study and understand more of the ideas developed under this framework.
The metaphorical “glass”
“The glass is half full,” says the optimist. “It is half empty,” retorts the pessimist. Who is the “realist?” They are both making objective, valid claims. We have said in the opening of the essay that this is illustrative in highlighting the fact that optimism and pessimism are not either true or false positive or negative identifications of reality but choices of focus. But let’s check the claim that “half empty” is an objective identification at all. I submit that it is an irrational claim serving as a rationalization for one’s resignation and fear.
The empty space in the glass is not an objective fact but a relative one, when we speak in terms of what the metaphor is meant to represent, i.e. what one has in one’s life. What if the glass were smaller? Or bigger? The amount one has to work with is the same, and one need not focus on the invented (and perhaps improbable) disaster represented by the emptiness. It is emptiness—i.e. not there—and thus is not worth consideration. The pessimist, on the other hand, is evading the fact of the water, choosing instead to make the emptiness relevant and worthy of attention. It is not rationally practical to focus on what does not have.
I must take this on here, as it is a valid argument. The glass metaphor may also be used to represent a more precisely defined goal, such as a financial, weight, or some other measurable performance goal. If I say above that the empty space is not objective but relative because we might readjust our goals, this clearer goal does make it objective; in this case, one may be said to be exactly halfway toward one’s goal.
But even then, to merely recognize that there is still halfway to go before one reaches one’s goal, i.e. “The glass is half empty,” is not pessimism. In the metaphor, to say that means that one is focusing on that fact. So even in this case of a goal halfway reached, it is much more empowering and increases the chances of success if one appreciates and focuses on what one has already accomplished, including how and why it was done, while it is subjective, irrational, and unhelpful to focus on how poor or fat one still is. Subjective, irrational, and unhelpful, that is, if one’s objective goal is to fill the glass.
Life is (objectively) good!
A mantra I repeat to my students, friends, myself, and in my work is: “Life is good.” But I don’t mean it lightly, and certainly not in the way a SOist might be heard to say it. It is a conclusion I have come to based on my appreciation of what I have (and on what caused it). We often conflate appreciation with gratitude, but appreciation precedes gratitude, as it essentially means to account for the value of something, whether good or bad. I can “appreciate” the magnitude of someone’s tragedy and therefore account for their emotional behavior, for instance, but I’m obviously not grateful for it.
So to say that I appreciate what I have means that I recognize it very consciously, and that in my account of my life and the world, it is not superficial that I can visit a hospital when I’m sick, eat whatever kind of food I like when I like, have a comfortable home which can stand up against any climate, the ability to get around comfortably and conveniently wherever I need to go (including to other countries!), time to build and enjoy rewarding relationships, the ever-increasing ability to choose what I want to do with my time, with recreation and entertainment options exceeding anything known to any human of past eras, and countless other advantages upon which to build a flourishing life.
A pessimist looks out at that same life and says that he has nothing while seeing that others have more (but while amazingly ignoring those who have less and the fact that everyone in history before him has had less). A SOist looks out at that same life but doesn’t wholly and consciously appreciate it—and certainly doesn’t seek to understand and appreciate its causes. And as neither takes such abundance into mindful account, i.e. appreciate it, scarcity and lack pervade in their worldview.
When an OOist attempts to point out all that is positive, they again chalk it up as given, but as given, they don’t actually chalk it up at all, and persist in choosing to focus on their relative lack, regardless of how much they have. On such a ledger, the negative appears to have more relative weight than it does in reality. But of course, objectivity means that one take all facts into account, while it is the method of subjectivism, unreason, and irrationality to leave facts unidentified and/or unappreciated. Once again, the results of such a method are worse than suboptimal.
View of and attitude toward other people
|Goodwill/generosity||Suspicion/hostility/ contempt||Suspicion/hostility/ contempt|
If one believes that the world is scarce, that one is deprived while others either have more or that they are a threat to one gaining more, how is it possible to have a benevolent view of them? The above emotions in the table are all one can feel for one’s fellows under such a perspective. And while a pessimist or SOist might try to insist he is sympathetic toward human beings, particularly toward their suffering, he cannot escape what he perceives as the reality of that threat or relative lack, and he will in spite of himself feel fear and envy in regard to his fellow human beings. Since pessimism and SO are both subjective approaches, their attempts to fabricate emotions of goodwill toward others are futile. Their worldview will draw them irresistibly to feel negatively toward them.
On the other hand, if one feels that life is abundant, that wealth and other values are created rather than taken (and thus can multiply indefinitely) and that one is efficacious in creating them, that all humans have this capacity, and that when others do create, one’s own life is better off, not worse, the view of others becomes obvious. While one is aware that bad people exist, it is not one’s default view of one’s fellows at large. Instead, an irresistible benevolence permeates one’s soul, and one feels a goodwill toward others, a sincere wish that they do well in their own lives.
And when one is optimizing one’s own life, seeing it get better in any respect toward which one applies OO, one is much more generous toward others. And particularly when one sees one’s material wealth increase not by accident but by deliberate and optimistic action in a world where that method is effectual, one becomes more charitable. There is not much charity and generosity forthcoming from people who are misers. Even the infamous Scrooge, who everyone else could see was rich, nonetheless saw only scarcity. It was after he changed his perspective that he became a benevolent force in the world—with the biggest beneficiary being himself.
Political expressions of OO & pessimism
Given the respective views of the world and subsequent views of other people, OO, pessimism, and SO lead people to divergent general views on what kind of society is appropriate for human beings to live in. If one thinks that people all share the same rational capacity as oneself and are therefore competent and efficacious in a world of abundance, where wealth is created and multiplied instead of shuffled around among looters and victims, one will come to the conclusion that individual freedom is the optimal condition within which humans ought to live in society. One will regard others as potential boons to one’s own life through trade—both in material and spiritual values—and will live together in a spirit of benevolence and goodwill. This again, is to the extent one is optimistic about the world and human nature.
By contrast, to the extent one sees the world as scarce and perilous, with others as potential threats, one’s fear will lead one to the view that others ought to be restrained and dictated to, so as not to rock the precarious boat too much. And further, if one feels impotent and helpless in an unstable world of irrational, contradictory, and incomprehensible natural laws set against us, one will project that view onto others. And what kind of society is appropriate for such impotent creatures? We need some kind of authority who can tell us what to do, in effect—to protect us.
Indeed, the power of one’s basic metaphysics and epistemology is awesome, as they together shape one’s ethics, views of other people, and as a result, one’s political philosophy, if only an implicit ideology. The consequences of the fundamental conflict between Optimism versus Pessimism become evident in normative issues.
|“Life is good and I know it.”||“Life is doomed and I know it.”||“Life is good…isn’t it?!”|
Because a pessimist or SOist starts not with what is (i.e. objective reality) but with his emotions, (i.e. subjective fear), he never gets to learn that fear is unnecessary. We have discussed the rationalization of the pessimist and the inevitable same for the SOist. At least on the periphery of their awareness, both cannot help—in 2020—to recognize that in their own lives, safety, abundance, and relative ease (in the fundamental survival sense) is the norm and that calamity is accidental. What’s very curious, particularly with pessimists, is that when this is made explicit to them—when confronted with evidence contradicting their unfounded fear and view of omnipotent evil—instead of embracing these facts with elation, they become frustrated that their worldview is disproved and attempt to evade or even deny them, always giving undue weight to the accidental negatives, attempting to make them the norm with abundance and ease the exception.
In one sense, our current and ever-increasing standard of living is an exception in the timeline of human history, but it was not because of any omnipotence of evil. Rather, it was a combination of a lack of knowledge about reality and of the wrong mental methods applied to making sense of it. After mysticism and other forms of irrationalism dominated past societies for millenia, reason, objectivity, and science have enlightened us, producing astounding material prosperity. Add that in the face of this, some have (and many continue) to hold to pessimistic frameworks, and to the extent these have or have had political power, they have thus held humans back from exercising their free minds.
But on the personal level, pessimists snatch at and cling to any negative example they can use to rationalize their inner-state of self-doubt and anxiety. It is anything they can use to confirm that their unbearable emotional state is not of their own making. They must know that life is doomed. If that isn’t true—that one’s own emotional state is the result of one’s own choices—well, one doesn’t want to consider such an idea.
OO demands that one look outward at the world and appreciate that when one is objective in applying reason to solve human problems, one can succeed. The OOist knows that life is good, or rather, knows what makes optimal success in reality and a good life possible. The SOist, meanwhile, doesn’t delve deeply into causes and thus never allows that periphery awareness of the good come into full focus. He just believes in it. But as stated over and over here, if one doesn’t know why things work or don’t work, the punishing examples of inevitable suffering such as do occur will come to feel as real as the positives, if not more real.
Practical and emotional results
|Optimization/ flourishing||Failure/depletion/ regression||Failure/depletion/ regression|
Any practical material progress a (consistent, let us remember) pessimist or SOist does enjoy is the result of the thinking and effort of potent OOs and living in society with such people. Only objective = efficacious. Subjective = impotent. “Wishing won’t make it so,” and one’s failure to appreciate the full context of reality (i.e. omitting or undervaluing the positive) will leave one unable to produce any material progress. In fact, as life is a process and requires constant action, stagnation is worse than ineffectual; it leads to regression or a depletion of values. With all this, one can’t claim that a passive, deterministic, pessimistic approach “works” in any way.
But while a subjectivist’s material impotence is mostly made up for in a free and modern society and thus more easily masked, it is much more apparent in the psychological/emotional realm, where another’s achievements cannot directly “rub off” on another and affect one’s view of oneself. Instead, being ineffectual in regard to reality in his own right, the pessimist’s deterministic view of the impotency of the good is reinforced, resigning him to passivity and despair. But as the evidence counter to this view keeps mounting, he understands on some level that it is not any irresistibly oppressive power of evil but his own fault which is the cause of his lack, and such awareness, when it comes closer to the fore, leads to depression. At the same time, he is frustrated that others seem not to share his emotional state and seem to succeed in reality, as if chance has favored them, and for that he is angry and resentful.
But a change in focus can remedy this. The alternative, however, as stated over and over, is not SO. And here is an excellent opportunity to see a deep divergence in the consequences of OO vs. SO. While an OOist looks outward at what is there for him upon which to build, he more often than not is rewarded with optimal results. These successes reinforce his confidence in reality and in his own reasoning mind. Happiness is a giant subject on its own, but in my view, two necessary preconditions are purpose and self-esteem (which is founded upon integrity). Seeking to optimize his own life and thinking and taking action to further it—and then succeeding—he satisfies these conditions. The OOist is happy, not in a skipping, ignorantly blissful, lunatic kind of way, but in a state of what Ayn Rand calls, “non-contradictory joy.”
But a SOist, lacking the certainty and corresponding confidence of the OOist, instead of gaining self-esteem from any success he stumbles upon feels guilty for it. His guilt stems partly from the vague awareness of his betrayal of a moral imperative (i.e., his evasion of reality) and to the extent he is wealthy in spite of his evasion. He knows it is unearned and so feels he doesn’t deserve it, and so he feels guilty towards those who are materially poor, whether or not they are also poor in spirit (i.e. deserve their lot). There is a sentimentality that accompanies this guilt, as the SOist hopes everyone can just be prosperous and happy, while still refusing to think hard about the causes of said virtues and values, which, once again, is the root of his guilt.
As for happiness, while purpose and self-esteem are prerequisites, there is a final key which the pessimist and SOist both wholly lack. In a sense, it is this lack which is their defining characteristic and its antithesis which defines an essential quality of a true optimist (OO). To appreciate something means to give it its full value, and only by being objective can one appreciate anything. But more than just being impractical to allow one’s subjective feelings to overstate the negative and understate the positive, it is detrimental to psycho-emotional health to fail to fully recognize the good.
I refer to a previous article of my own to explain:
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 offer one more quote and one paraphrase to summarize the differences between OO, pessimism, and SO in terms of practical and emotional consequences. Paraphrasing Lord Bryce from earlier, I say, “Confidence goes a long way towards optimization.” And to both practical and emotional results, I quote Ayn Rand again:
“Achieving life is not the equivalent of avoiding death. Joy is not the absence of pain.”Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual, p.135
Let’s apply it
I have taken great pains to separate OO from the subjectivist who evades real risk or downside and attempts to operate in a kind of “ignorance-is-bliss” euphoria. “It’ll all work out” is not a formula for optimal results. I have repeatedly emphasized that the issue of optimism versus pessimism is not about accurately or inaccurately calculating probabilities, but rather, given the probable outcomes, upon what does one place one’s focus and how does one proceed in action?
And here, it is important to note that one can still be optimistic when rejecting an unfavorable project or alternative and likewise can still be pessimistic after accepting a favorable one. It is not pessimism which should get the credit when one rationally opts out of an endeavor. It is only the caricature created to rationalize pessimism—the subjective, fingers-crossed “optimist”—who says to any proposal, “Yeah! Go for it! I trust it’ll all work out.” Real optimism is not about evading awareness of risk or menace but of putting it in its proper place.
My conception of optimism (which can mean only OO) versus pessimism exposes contrasting frameworks for effectual, optimal success in the world (i.e. human flourishing). As a mental method applied to dealing with specific real-life choices, the former is practical and therefore moral while the latter, being impractical, is immoral (if one’s moral standard is the achievement of objective human flourishing). At a metaphysical level, the former is rational and objective while the latter is subjective and irrational.
I will grant that pessimism, as a metaphysical view, was more understandable in pre-scientific and pre-industrial times, if not still mistaken. But given the present-day evidence of the power of the human mind to grasp nature’s secrets and reshape it to whatever suits us, defying all adversity and brushing it to the category of “accident,” it is not longer tenable on any level to maintain a pessimistic view.
Back to OO vs. pessimism and SO as mental methods, the following examples will serve to illustrate what each looks like when applied in real life, which is what we all must attempt to live.
In baseball, a batting average indicates how often a batter gets a hit. An OOist, Pessimist, and SOist are each batting .300 (i.e. each gets a hit 30% of the time, which in the major leagues is excellent). How is each gonna do at any plate appearance? An average doesn’t dictate results; it merely reports them. So how, then, does one positively affect results and raise one’s average? Which of the three mental approaches is the best if one wants optimal results?
To the extent a pessimist looks outward at reality, he sees that 70 percent of the time in the past, he’s not getting a hit. He looks out at the defence and sees nowhere for a ball to drop. He sees the pitcher and feels that the he knows what he, the batter, expects and can therefore throw mixes that will fool him. But his real focus is inward at himself, and the overwhelming feeling is self-doubt. Given the “evidence” of “reality,” he doesn’t expect a hit. He is resigned to failure but figures he’ll let fate decide whether he’s lucky or not on this one. Just don’t let me strike out. That’s embarrassing.
After a called strike, he focuses on the umpire’s bad decision and feels a sharp hostility toward him. The ump has got it in for him. He thinks about how he can use that later as an excuse for his likely failure. The impetus to at least not strike out is raised now. “What are people gonna think?” “Ah, screw you, Destiny. I knew things wouldn’t line up for me this at-bat.” The at-bat isn’t even over.
So, if we agree that the above is not effective, the “opposite” approach would have to be effective, right? Let’s bring up the SOist. He is looking at his average and thinking that .300’s pretty good, and while he may not get a hit, who can blame him? People can only expect him to get one 30% of the time. The SOist looks within himself and tries to summon a strong belief in his ability. “I’m a good player, aren’t I?” He hopes he’ll swing at the right time and it’ll land in a safe spot.
But this is not really the opposite. Rather, it’s just the flip side of the same subjectivist coin. While the pessimist is ready to blame circumstances which are stacked up against him, the SOist also leaves it to circumstances and chance, the only difference being that he kind of feels hopeful about it all. This mentality may be somewhat more helpful than the negative thoughts, as it relieves a lot of the pressure, and feeling comfortable is an advantage to a batter. But comfort and lack of pressure is not the same as confidence. And what happens when things don’t go well for a period and he finds himself in a slump? It becomes harder to evade reality in this case, and because this kind of “optimism” is only manufactured subjectively from within, it cannot withstand the mounting evidence of the power of negative forces out of his control. In spite of his hope, his precarious “self-confidence” turns to self-doubt and the vague feeling that he might not be so good as people think.
Confidence can only come from knowing, which can only come from objectivity.
OO has been defined as a two-pronged approach. The first characteristic of the approach, objectivity, means that one look outward at the conditions given and not inward at one’s feelings. The second then dictates that one focus on what is optimal going forward. One doesn’t look at past successes or failures, but focuses on the job at hand. It isn’t about the likelihood of getting a hit. An OOist doesn’t take his average into account at all. It’s irrelevant.
Instead, his focus is on his surroundings. The OOist looks out at the defence and looks for gaps to hit. He considers which fielders are the weakest and whether there is any space near them. Taking other factors into account like whether there is anyone on base, etc., he decides on an area he’d prefer to knock the ball into. He tries to think about what the pitcher is likely to throw. He checks his stance to make sure his feet are where he likes them, he focuses on loosening his grip a little, keeping elbows up, and any other thing he has been taught to put together for an optimal swing. As the pitcher winds up, he looks to his hand to see if he can identify which pitch comes out. He follows the ball in, again looking to see if he can identify the pitch and whether it’s one he likes, given his plan and the count, etc.
He repeats this process after each pitch, focusing only on those same things. It is all he can do, until he either gets on base or sits down, i.e. until there is nothing left to be done. They say a batter must have a short memory. For an OOist, the past is irrelevant and his focus is always on the present (while he is in action), with an underlying confidence and image of what success is possible in the future if he sticks to the game plan.
“I don’t believe I’ll get a hit every time. But every time, I believe I’ll get a hit.”
The quote in the above subheading may sound like a SOist, but taken in the proper context, it is the mantra of an OOist. The first sentence translates to: “I’m not crazy. I know going into the season that I won’t get a hit every at-bat.” But the “belief” in the second sentence is not an unfounded, subjective belief (i.e. “Just believe in yourself!”). Because he is aware of why he has succeeded in the past, of what are good habits, techniques, and strategies—of what really works—he has given himself objective evidence upon which to found a belief that he can hit the ball. In full context, that “belief” speaks to the confidence he feels in his approach to every at-bat. And because he is not focused on potential failure or success—but on what he is given and on what he must do therefore—he is positioned for the best possible outcome, all other things being equal.
And this last will help us answer a possible challenge: “How do they all have a .300 average if one approach is superior?” I asked myself this question when I thought of the scenario. But it is easily answered. Let us assume that the pessimist and SOist are more skillful, stronger players, or that their competition is weaker, or some other factor which results in an outcome equal to the OOist. A rational, practical, and moral approach to life or any endeavor does not guarantee success. I only say that all other things being equal, e.g. skill, speed, strength, coordination, etc., I want the OOist on my team.
The following scenario is quite heavy but, horrible as it is, ought to help us highlight the life and death issue at stake here. While an OOist might regard catastrophe and evil as accidental, exceptional, and unimportant, they are no less real, and it is no guarantee that one will not find oneself in a dire situation. Optimism is emphatically not about thinking nothing bad will ever happen or that “things will always work out for the best.” Let us then, for the sake of illustration, take on this dreadful scenario and see how the respective mental methods dictate a response to it.
To simplify the matter and to relieve the anguish somewhat, let us assume that one’s family is safe and that one is held in a concentration camp with only strangers. How, now, does a pessimistic framework inform one’s actions? To begin, a pessimist’s summary metaphysical worldview is confirmed. “This is what life is. What can one do?” The leaders and guards are very powerful—evil is powerful—and the good is pathetic and weak in the face of it. “What can one do in the face of such malice and hate?”
And so the pessimist is resigned to inaction. He imagines various scenarios of his demise and of what the masters might do with him in the meantime. He shrinks within himself, looking to see who is to blame for his having been caught. “Why me?” He is terrified and he hates his captors, but he is scared to move. Best to just sit and wait and leave it in the hands of providence…but don’t expect anything.
A SOist, if he is an overly buoyant one, will at various moments try to believe that luck in his favor, like someone feeling a slightly expectant glow throughout the day because they have a lottery ticket in their pocket. But this feeling is only on the periphery, and when he looks over toward the periphery and his slim chances of a winner become more real to him, the SOist looks away, feeling he is safe so long as he doesn’t see it. But in such a dire place, this hopeful feeling is much more fleeting and hard to hold onto than a belief in a lotto win.
This is precisely what subjectivism is. It means trying to create reality from within instead of observing and responding to reality. And it is upon such principled evasion as above that this kind of “optimism” is founded. There is nothing optimal about it. With this policy, the SOist will never know what’s really out there and so will be rightfully scared, making it impossible to act. In spite of himself once again, like the pessimist, the SOist will sit and wait and leave it in the hands of providence…but maybe someone will save us? No, I know better in my heart of hearts.
Meanwhile, unlike the SOist, an OO is fully aware of the dangers and of one’s chances of survival. And unlike the pessimist, he regards this situation as an aberration and as somewhat of a joke. It’s not funny that he may die, but in a grand, metaphysical way, these pretentious monsters holding him are contemptible and pathetic. And though the knowledge of his righteousness and superiority to his captors colors his view of the whole situation, that is not where his focus lies and it is not upon that truth that he will take consolation and rest. His focus is on what he can do until he is free or can act no more. It’s all on trying to figure it out, work with what he has and go from there.
Observe that in documented stories (and in movies portraying the heroes of such stories), it is never about people huddled and crying the whole time who survive, but the optimists who hold dear to values worth fighting for and which fuel them to live. This helps them maintain that the real world—which is just beyond this place—is one of good and delight and that this nightmare is only an insignificant deviation. Such protagonists also know that their mind is the best chance they have if they are to get out, and they are seen to constantly learn about their surroundings and their captors and to think of ways to deceive them. Through their optimism, they maintain some sense of dignity and humanity throughout a degrading and demoralizing ordeal, and in the end, they have pulled through—or died as a human being.
Summarily put, if the three were in a burning building, a SOist is the type who repeats naively and unconvincingly, “Everything’s fine!” while his hair is on fire. And consider that this is how many people caricature an optimist.
But a genuine optimist is not a subjectivist and does not cling to faith. An OOist would look at the facts and figure out what is the best plan until he were either free from the building or dead.
A pessimist would simply cry out in despair, believing he’s going to die and so more likely would. Harsh, but this is the cost of failing to focus on what would objectively optimize one’s chances of survival.
Observe here also that a SOist and pessimist resemble each other fundamentally in that, despite their opposing subjective beliefs, both are ultimately passive in regard to the situation. Only OO leads one to take responsibility for one’s own fate.
Meaning and optimization in daily life
If we can see how OO is the only method by which an individual can deal successfully with specific situations in reality, urgent or otherwise, what is at stake in regular life? Most of us will not have to deal with emergencies such as discussed above. Most of us, rather, live quiet, safe lives, where the challenges come not in facing hunger, natural climate, disease, gangsters, and tyrants, but in questions as to what work and recreation one ought to pursue, how to build and maintain rewarding, healthy relationships, how to achieve good physical and emotional health—ultimately, how to be happy and thrive. Which framework, then, will help fill one’s life with meaning and purpose, and result in flourishing?
Rather than write three stories about an OOist, pessimism, and SOist, trying to include examples of various life goals and instances, I will instead refer to a single story known to most. Because it’s been Christmas recently and I enjoyed both “A Christmas Carol“(the 2009 Jim Carrey version) and “The Man Who Invented Christmas” (the 2017 film depicting the story of Charles Dickens while creating the famous tale)—the infamous character, Ebenezer Scrooge is fresh in my mind, and I was struck by how great an example he is of what difference a mindset means to one’s life.
Scrooge offers a perfect illustration that it is not facts in reality which determine whether one is an optimist or pessimist. The conditions of his life were the same while he was both. It was only overnight that he decided—chose—to see things a different way. And it was only this perspective which was the difference in his life—not any other factor. There was no existential change in his life, only an attitude. He went from misery to happiness with the switch of a mindset. To be clear, he didn’t invent any reality or pretend that things were different than they were. He simply recognized that what he did have was good. He quit overvaluing the negative things around him and remedied the even greater moral crime of undervaluing the good things in his life, which is the hallmark of pessimism.
The lesson for the rest of us is that if you wait for something to happen to you or until you attain such-and-such before you’re happy, it won’t matter either way if you’re not already optimistic. My students often try to claim (a view shared by many) that a lottery win would make them happy. But let us look at Scrooge. It was not a change in fortune which led to his happiness. Indeed, he was an extremely rich man.
Money will not give you virtue, and the idea that it will is a subjective, irrational attempt to reverse cause and effect. If you’re a rotter, money will only help you destroy yourself more quickly. If you’re virtuous already, then it will help you achieve rational values much more quickly and thus increase your happiness. But the secret is to be happy now with what you have—to appreciate it. Then build upon it, and when you do find yourself in a better situation, you say, “Wow!” and enjoy the even greater abundance. But you need not wait for any such existential improvement. You can choose optimism right now.
Enter at optimism
In the Q&A of a mock panel discussion related to the topic of Pessimism versus Optimism in my university classroom this past semester, one student asked the “panelists” an excellent question: Does success lead to optimism or does optimism lead to success?
I allowed the panelists to work through it together and then waited as some other students in the audience had a crack at their own ideas. I had never considered the question before myself, and this was well before I really started to think of optimism as a broad central issue in human flourishing and certainly before starting to formulate the hypothesis of OO versus Pessimism and SO. But an answer was appearing in my mind, and while I don’t chime in on everything, I do when I think there’s something of value that was missed in their discussion.
The class was somewhat divided, going one way or the other, although nobody doubted the correlation. It was true, I also thought, that while it seemed clear to me—and I now argue here—that optimism as an applied method leads to success, I also saw that when one does enjoy some success, it reinforces the confidence in one’s method, and so amplifies one’s optimism. In that way, it does “lead to” more optimism. So when I referred to a “virtuous circle,” they all seemed ready to accept the idea, not insisting that one had to precede the other. However, it was one question I added that was of most value—to them, to myself, and to anyone looking to optimize any aspect of their lives: So, where can one enter the circle?
For me, the clear answer was optimism. One cannot simply wait for success to befall them. Success does not occur by chance, and to the extent it does occur through seemingly random means, that only indicates that one is unable to identify the causes and so will be unable to repeat the success. The same is true if the success does somehow come about by total fluke. In either case, success will not lead to more optimism but to more doubt and apprehension. It is only when one knows why one has succeeded that one’s optimism is heightened and the virtuous circle gains momentum.
It is essential here that we cash in on our new conception of optimism, understanding it clearly. If we attempt to insert ourselves at SO, we will not get moving very far. To enter at real optimism (which can only mean OO) means to enter at reason, appreciating the full context of what is actually there, then choosing to focus on the good, i.e. what one has to build upon. It means to choose to be kind and charitable in one’s view of others, with the focus on appealing to the good in them. It means choosing objective reality. These and other complementary causes will lead to their corresponding effects of self-esteem, confidence, success, and happiness. And these effects will in turn fuel more of the same within a virtuous circle.
In my discussion on “choice of focus” above, I argue that one’s choice of focus is the most important central issue because “Choosing to focus on and appreciate what one has can lead to the development of all other characteristics listed in the OO column.” It is not choosing to focus on things which are not there, either overvaluing the negative (as per pessimism) or pretending good things exist which don’t (as is the method of SO). This second is the caricature we must eradicate. In its place, let us not default to Pessimism but properly grant the intellectual high ground to a genuine, rational, objectively defined Optimism, with its focus on the good that is always there and which only ceases to be there once life is extinct.
It is not predetermined that some people are optimists and some are pessimists. In one’s approach to the project of one’s life, fundamentally, it is as simple as that any of us may choose to enter at optimism.