Estimated reading time 15 mins.
The following is a revised excerpt from my essay, “What is Objective Optimism?”, which you can read in full here. For a briefer introduction to Objective Optimism (OO), which is distinct from Pessimism and—more notably—from Subjective “Optimism” (SO), go here.
In my essay, “What is Objective Optimism?”, I take great pains to separate Objective Optimism (OO) from the subjectivist who evades awareness of 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 and cannot properly be called optimism. I also repeatedly emphasize 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 with that clarification, we can 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 one’s 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. But in any era of human existence, I submit that OO is the only rational and practical mindset with which to approach any of life’s challenges.
The following examples will serve to illustrate what OO, pessimism, and SO look 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.