There are really two types of optimists. We use the word “optimist” to describe both, but they are really very different. Perhaps someone should invent better words for these concepts, but for now I’ll just call it “good” and “bad” optimism.
I think the confusion between these two is why so many people resist so-called “positive thinking”, “self help”, affirmations and so on. They associate all of it with the bad (or insincere) kind of optimism.
So what is bad optimism? A bad optimist is a person that says “everything will be fine”, without giving a reason. They are the Pollyannas of the world. Bad optimism is to force yourself to be happy because you’re “supposed” and be, or to ignore problems because you don’t want to face them. Bad optimism is self delusion, pretending that bad things don’t exist. You’ve probably met people like this, who believe that “everything will be fine, because it has to be.”
This kind of “optimism” is actually not a positive mindset at all – even though it pretends to be. It is really rooted in fear. And when you think about it, it’s a deeply negative way of viewing the world. Because it implies that if you truly acknowledged that bad things – failure, loss, relationship breakups, sickness, even death – are possible, then the world would fall apart. Insincere optimists believe that if any of these were to happen it would be an unmitigated disaster. So they must hide that bad thought away, and push it out of their minds with fake positivism.
Good optimism, or what you might call real optimism, is not built on fear. It is build on seeing possibility. A real optimist can see both the good and the bad outcomes equally, and can take a calculated risk. They do not seek to escape reality, instead they revel in it, both the good and the bad. They do not view failure as a disaster, but merely as a learning opportunity. Why? Because they believe, strongly and sincerely, that success is possible. And when success is possible, it’s only a matter of time and effort to get there.
A good optimist is focused on moving towards the positive, not away from the negative. This requires courage, which is the opposite of the fear that fake optimists experience. If he/she believed that all negative outcomes were unthinkable disasters, then taking calculated risks would be impossible. Because no matter how good the upside is, if the downside is infinitely bad then it’s never worth the risk.
But what real optimists have learned that makes them different from most people, is that in the real world, almost all disasters can be handled, and almost all bets can be hedged. And they realize that some bad outcomes (like death or criticism from others) are unavoidable, so you cannot spend your whole life fleeing from them.
When decisions are no longer about life-or-death, you can afford to take risks. You can afford to experiment, play around and learn. A real optimist knows that if they do the right things, then success is possible. And they know that failure is not fatal. So they have a real choice of what opportunities to pursue.
That is also why real optimists take the time to develop themselves, because they know that skills and education actually make a difference. Fear-based insincere optimists on the other hand, take the strategy of “hoping for the best”, because they have no choice in their life.
So is “good” optimism worth it? Absolutely!
People who are willing to take (sensible) financial risk, make much more money on average than people who don’t. People who aren’t constantly worried about diseases or death are generally much more healthy, because they take control over their own health. And people who aren’t deathly afraid of losing their relationship partner, generally have much more satisfying relationships because they do not get locked into co-dependence and clinginess.
Real optimism is not about believing that “everything will be fine”. Real optimism is facing up to your fears, and realizing that when everything isn’t fine, you’ll still be able to handle it.