Optimism works better than pessimism. It gives you a chance of moving forward, instead of giving up before you start. A certain amount of optimism is incredibly effective to help you pursue your artistic projects and get things done. There is no doubt about. Unfortunately, there are some limitations to optimism, though. That raises the question: what works better than optimism?
The problem with optimism is that it has become compulsory and mandatory, in our culture. We tend to believe, without adequate proof that if we think good thoughts, then good things will always happen. Sadly, there are numerous counter examples where thinking optimistic thoughts at an organisational level lead to catastrophe. The financial crisis of 2008 owes its origin to a toxic mixture of dishonesty coupled with a tyranny of optimism, where nobody was willing to blow the whistle and declare that the emperor had no clothes, for fear of being labelled as negative.
An entire industry has sprung up preaching that holding positive thoughts actually affects the universe at a quantum level. Books like “The Secret” became best sellers by peddling this notion. Regrettably, the hard scientific evidence for this theory is sadly lacking. It’s an interesting idea and a nice thought, but so far we have little real evidence. Only belief. As Carl Sagan was fond of saying, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To date, the evidence is underwhelming.
The obverse of the coin of believing that positive attitudes cause positive outcomes is that if you are unfortunate enough to have misfortune befall you, or if you are dealing with some very life changing or challenging situations, it’s all the fault of your own bad attitude. Far from people offering assistance and compassion, there is a climate of moral callousness, whereby you are required to put aside grief, sadness and sorry and put on a smiley, happy, optimistic face, so that all will be well.
The problem with this is that it isolates you. You are cast into difficult circumstances, but expected to deal with them on your own. It’s just you, against the entire universe. If you stop for a moment and think about the proposition that your bad attitude brings the whole universe down upon you, in a bad way, isn’t it quite amazing that such a small organism, compared to the universe, can have such a large effect on it? It’s an utter absurdity.
Worse still, there are those that will selfishly, exploitatively take advantage of this climate of enforced optimism to inflict negative outcomes on people and present it to them as an opportunity for freedom, self improvement and change, as if they only had the best interests of the people they are doing terrible things to, all along. That’s cynical and predatory, not to mention unfeeling, insensitive, ruthless and merciless. They know that what they are doing is harming and upsetting people, but they can get away with it simply by blaming the whole thing on an indifferent universe and the fact that the person’s own bad attitude must have brought the disaster upon them, according to the theory. What a way to absolve yourself of blame and responsibility for imposing horrible, unwarranted, unwelcome life changes on other people, when it suited you to do so!
So, optimism has distinct limits and all the feel-good coaching that encourages you to face disaster with a smile and dig deep into your inner self to adjust your attitude, so that the good times return or continue, is nothing more than a cruel hoax and an unsympathetic marketing exercise, at worst. You shouldn’t have to face the worst things on your own or be blamed for causing your own misfortune. Misfortune is frequently imposed upon the innocent and blameless. That’s why babies, too young to think optimistically or pessimistically, are often killed in wars. It has nothing to do with their choices or attitudes.
What is an artist to do when optimism reaches its limits? It has been suggested that an alternative to blind, enforced, manic, byzantine optimism is realism. Honour your feelings of loss, pain, suffering and grief. Assess what can be achieved with a touch of optimism and go with those, but ultimately recognise that you’re going to need a helping hand with the rest of it. Being realistic, I assure you, will take you a lot further forward than being blindly, falsely optimistic.
That isn’t to say you should assess every situation as hopeless. That’s unrealistic too. Realism demands that you apply optimism appropriately, but face the facts and deal with negative things realistically, when optimism alone is not going to work.
Better than realism, though is unity. Remember that the cult of optimism forces everybody into a “lone gunslinger against the whole universe” frame of reference. There are some things that require a lot of people to act in concert, for real change to happen and for them to get done. If we act with compassion and unity toward one another, then optimism, in the collective sense, becomes amplified. We can do things together that no single person alone could ever hope to achieve, however optimistic they are as an individual. In fact, if an optimist meets lots of other optimists and they act with some realism, they can achieve amazing outcomes, collectively.
There is nothing in the idea of optimism that says it has to be isolating. You might even suggest that forcing people to be optimistic on their own, unaided, is actually a doctrine intended to stifle dissent and revolution. It protects the status quo and sets limits on the amount of change that can be accomplished. Why should the individual take on the universe, single-handed, when there are so many more people that could have some empathy and identify with their plight, who could lighten their load by lending a hand?
Revolutions don’t require destruction, violence, chaos and disorder. Revolutions can be achieved by thinking better thoughts, together, and acting upon them. Dividing people into individual units of resistance against the entire universe merely dilutes their efficacy.
So there you have it. Optimism is often a necessary, but insufficient condition to bring about change in the universe. Forcing people that are facing difficulties to adjust their attitude and wear a smile is callous and cruel. We evolved the emotions of grief, sorrow, loss and sadness for sound, evolutionary reasons. Denying those emotions is perverse. Stronger than optimism is realism. Couple those two with some unity and the universe is much more fungible.
Don’t let anybody tell you differently.