Optimism, pessimism, and getting stuff done

I’m somewhat wary of self-proclaimed optimists because of their negative views about people they consider pessimists. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not talking of people who have a positive energy and view with regards to life, though they are optimists, too; I am talking of people who keep insisting that they see the glass half-full and are always happy, and who assume that anyone not claiming to be an all-bubbly optimistic is a pessimist. I am talking, possibly, of all those well-built aunts who smacked my back jovially, all 80-kilos force in their cheerful gesture, and told me, “Be Happy!” while I tried not to groan as I twisted myself back into shape.

I have often wondered why optimists cannot see the glass half-full when viewing persons they consider pessimists.

The funniest part is when optimists start blaming others for pulling them down. One would think their optimism would have survived that 🙂

The oddity of such externalized blame struck me first around four years ago when a merrily positive soul told me he wanted to run the marathon that year. Now, running a marathon figures in many a wishlist, and often stagnates as a doomed-to-remain-a-wish item. I have it on my 43things list myself, if I remember right. But to meet someone who had a specific target of doing so by the year end was both intriguing and inspiring, and after some initial ooohs and aaahs, I started asking him about the training plan and stuff like that. Oh boy, what a mistake that was. I was labeled as the one pulling him down with my questions and making him look away from his dream and stuff like that, as if my asking him practical questions was the same as saying he cannot do it. (He’s become a pessimist since, and manages to run a few kilometers regularly)

I have noticed this problem several times since then, that self-proclaimed optimists who keep boasting of 20/20 vision re half-full glasses find me negative if I get enthused or impressed about a prospective project and get so charged up that I get involved and ask some question– like, so this organization you want to set up, what is its objective, what services will you provide, how are you going about it, when do you plan to have it ready–whatever. Being accused of pulling people down by asking questions has happened repeatedly to me, and I still am unable to see what is negative about asking for details. Apparently asking questions that remind the bubbling optimists of the impending work and challenges is negative as such.

The Wikipedia page on optimism says (as of today’s version) that :

Optimism is a mental attitude that interprets situations and events as being best (optimized), meaning that in some way for factors that may not be fully comprehended, the present moment is in an optimum state. The concept is typically extended to include the attitude of hope for future conditions unfolding as optimal as well.

I guess if optimism is about finding the current moment optimized, and if that current moment is a nice fluffy dream, then disturbing questions (even if related to actions necessary for achieving a dream) are negative. Yet, perhaps it is stupid of me (or perhaps it is ‘optimistic’), but I keep hoping the next person I ask questions will see them positively.

People like me never learn 🙂

But talking of questions and getting things done, another characteristic I’ve noticed in self-proclaimed optimists is their confidence that they will achieve stuff and are better equipped to do so than pessimists. That, of course, is core to the concept of being optimistic, but I’m not sure it is true.

Okay, so being optimistic is known to have definite health benefits. You live longer, with fewer diseases, and you live happier. What’s that got to do with doing things?

I’ve looked around me, and so far the only correlation I’ve found between personal characteristics and getting things done is this one thing: people who get things done are people who act. They may act because they are “positive” about change, or because they are disheartened about the current situation, or just out of some habit, but taking some action seems to be an integral part of doing stuff 🙂

After yet another incident recently when I found myself pondering about all things positive, I tried to define my own approach to life. I don’t describe myself as either an optimist or a pessimist; I am gung-ho about some things and down-in-the-dump about others, and actually far from consistent overall. Even across a day, I swing between all-chirpy energy and I-can’t-do-this-any-more dips.

And if you give me the glass-that-reveals-the-observer’s-true-nature, I see it as being half-full and half-empty, which is something optimists call pessimism (because I saw the half-empty part, see?).

BTW, I note that while optimists are pessimistic about the future of non-optimists and are often uncomfortable with them, pessimists are not that pessimistic about optimists and take them in their stride. Is there a lesson somewhere in that?

Anyway, back to work. Or rather, how people get work done. I was reading a book, Making Ideas Happen, by Scott Belsky, and while momentum and flow and energy were discussed, sheer glass-half-full was not mentioned and the index at the back contained no entry on either optimism or pessimism.

Nor do I find too many of the top achievers rant/ boast about being contentedly happy with the current situation and seeing glasses half-full; they are usually more vocal about momentum, positive energy and enthusiasm taking risks, commitment, involvement, energy, drive, the relentless movement forward. Some even talk of killing ideas to make way for other ideas, of the value of skeptics. Maybe I am being selective in what I remember…

So yeah, I don’t think it is some sort of foregone conclusion that optimists get more work done. From what I’ve read, the jury is out on that. Of course, they may be happier about not getting work done than your run-of-the-mill pessimist…

Which to me means that if you want to get stuff done, don’t bother about being optimistic or pessimistic: just remember to act.

…and while optimism definitely sounds a happy way to live, I am rather wary of a state that seems so fragile that it cannot handle one cold sigh of a pessimist nearby without resorting to blaming the pessimist or feeling compelled to transform the pessimist into an optimist (a losing battle there). It doesn’t seem to me like such optimism is a stable, happy situation.

As an aside, I did a couple of those questionnaires to figure out whether I am alleged an optimist or a pessimist, and I came out as highly optimistic in one and a pessimistic in another, which probably explains the confused nature of the above post 🙂

[Note: Dear self-proclaimed optimists, hope your happy-go-lucky mindset allows you to see a glass full-full in the post above.]

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About Swapna Kishore
I'm a writer, blogger, and resource person for dementia/ caregiving in India. I have also been a dementia caregiver for well over a decade, and am deeply concerned about dementia care in India; on this blog I share my personal caregiving journey, my experiences as a resource person for dementia care, and musings on life, aging, dementia in India, and such sundries. More about me and the work I do for dementia care. For structured information on dementia, for discussions, tools and tips on caregiving issues, for resources in India, and for caregiver interviews, please check my website http://dementiacarenotes.in (or its Hindi version, http://dementiahindi.com). For videos on dementia caregiving (English and Hindi), check the youtube channel here.

3 Responses to Optimism, pessimism, and getting stuff done

  1. Rajesh says:

    Thanks for the great post.

    I can relate to many of the incidents, as the misguided optimist.

    As you have said in the post “don’t bother about being optimistic or pessimistic: just remember to act. ” seems sound counsel.

  2. Pingback: My involvement in dementia care support: an explanation « Swapna writes…

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