Estimated reading time 4 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. For some illustrative applications of OO versus Pessimism and SO, go here.
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 Objective Optimism (OO) versus Pessimism and Subjective “Optimism” (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 here 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” in my essay, “What is Objective Optimism?“, 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 focusing on things that are not there, either overvaluing the negative (as per pessimism) or pretending good things exist which don’t (as is the method of SO). And 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 one is no longer living and can act no more.
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.