What is Objective Optimism? (an introduction and comparative table)

Estimated reading time 7 mins.

The following is a revised excerpt from my essay, “What is Objective Optimism?”, which you can read in full here. For some illustrative applications of Objective Optimism (OO) versus Pessimism and Subjective “Optimism” (SO), go here.

Optimism needs a new look

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…ignorancenaivety, 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? This example helps illustrate 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.

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.

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. 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.

Don’t take it personally

I feel I must preempt and remove one anticipated objection 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
Free willDeterministDeterminist
Good is predominant; evil is impotentEvil is omnipotentGood is weak in the face of evil
  Epistemology (mental method)
Present + future focusPresent + past focusPresent + Past focus
  Ethics (goal of life, guide to action)
Gaining values/ flourishing Not losing values/ “survival” or “security” Not losing values/ “survival” or “security”
Progress (building)StagnationStagnation
PurposeLack of purposeLack of purpose
ControlLack of controlLack of control
  Choice of focus  
Abundance mindsetScarcity mindsetScarcity mindset
Focus on what one hasFocus on what one doesn’t have & what others haveFocus on what one doesn’t have & what others have
AppreciationTake things for grantedTake things for granted
  View of and attitude toward other people
GoodwillSuspicion/hostility/ contemptUncertainty/guilt
  Summary worldview
“Life is good and I know it.”“Life is doomed and I know it.”“Life is good…isn’t it?!”
  Practical and Emotional results

And for a breakdown and discussion of the above table, see the full essay, “What is Objective Optimism?”

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