Happiness 102: Pessimism, Optimism, & Expectations

I’ve been considered an overly optimistic person, but I’m not, I’m hopeful. Although that may seem like the same thing it’s not. Optimism is what I detailed through the last two articles- looking on the bright side. Hope, however, is the expectation that life will get better. But what if it doesn’t, what if I always have this minimum wage job that I have now and am just stuck here? Pessimism is just that: the expectation that things will never change or get worse. Most people can see how pessimism can be bad: you plan for the worse and get depressed on things that may never happen. How can hope be bad? Well, you expect or wait for the best, and it never comes or is a worse outcome than expected.

Expectations are always bad, because they nearly never come true. Honestly think about the last time you thought a situation was going to come out amazingly and turned out horrible or a time when you thought something was going to go badly but ended up making you feel absolutely joyful. None of those thoughts are real. You are getting happy/sad over your imagination! Think about it: You are on a date with someone and you are worrying about “oh, I’m going to say something stupid” when 9 times out of 10, you don’t- and when you do, it’s BECAUSE you were over-analyzing the situation. That entire time your date never even had that thought cross their mind and wasn’t worried about it. They were just interested in a nice evening or maybe they were worried about themselves saying something stupid. Either way neither ends up focused on reality, but just focused on the expectation that things will go wrong. Or conversely, we could expect the night to end up great- way more than should “oh this date is going well, maybe we’ll take things up to the apartment afterwards” then being let down when it doesn’t happen. Expectations are bad (as well as assumptions).

Now how is optimism different from hope? As I said, hope is the expectation that things will go well. Optimism, in this context, means to look at things from a bright side. Hope lies in the future and optimism the present. Although pessimism can also lie in the present- “she asked for the bill already, she can’t stand my attention.” The optimist: “She asked for the bill already, she seems like a busy person and she gave what little time she has to me, that’s wonderful! “

Now say you’ve been getting strong social cues that she does not like how the date is going and it’s not you over-analyzing. Realists see the world as it is. Now it is hard for me to visualize this because of perspective biases- I tend to live in the dreamy, hopeful world. But a realist can still be an optimist! A realist may notice the negative cues she is lending out and say “well this date is over” but the optimistic part of the realist can say “Now I can learn from this experience and know who I’m not compatible with”. Think of Benjamin Franklin’s finding “1000 ways not to make a light bulb”.

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