OPTIMISM REVISITED

wendyAs far back as I can remember, I’ve wore rose-colored glasses.  This tendency to see the best in people and life in general is not something I particularly worked at or read how-to books about. I guess you could just say it’s in my nature.  It’s part of my genetic makeup. And I do believe that my positive energy has attracted a lot of good people and situations in my life.

Globally we know hundreds of research studies have confirmed that optimistic leads to greater health and better outcomes after illness, bereavement, and other major life changes. Not surprisingly what has followed is a plethora of books about how to raise optimistic children, pets, or even your own positivity IQ. Everybody, it seems, wants to ride on the sunny side of the train.

image014This all sounds good, right?  Well, the answer to that is yes and no. We are steeped in a culture that touts but does not practice moderation in almost everything. Over the years, I have come to learn that there is such a thing as too much optimism.  Moderation and realistic expectations have a vital balancing role to play in our lives as well. Personally, there have been occasions when I have not read the warning signs of people who didn’t have the best intentions and I have been hurt and duped.  Naively, I would take on tasks with unbridled enthusiasm that I wasn’t quite prepared for and felt not surprisingly overwhelmed.  The list could go on and I’m sure friends and family could surely chime in with a story or two.

What has stopped (or more accurately curbed) these errors in judgment or naivety (depending on your perspective) has been a long standing practice of mindfulness meditation.  With mindfulness, you focus only on what is actually going on in this moment.  It slows down the chatter in your mind and brings a heightened awareness of what is going on around you and how that is reflected back in your body.  For me, this clear sense of the present has led to increasing insight in my daily life and dare I say it- a modicum of wisdom. 

Water liliesOne of my greatest teachers in mindfulness described ardent optimism in this sage way: “It is always a lot more fun and enjoyable to be around someone with a sunny disposition rather than one who is always pessimistic and complaining.  However, they both can be equally delusional.”   

Famously, the Stockdale paradox demonstrates this concept. Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale was routinely tortured, beaten, and kept in solitary confinement in a Vietnam prison as a POW for seven years.  When asked what his coping strategy was Stockdale replied: “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade.”

When asked about fellow prisoners who didn’t make it, Stockdale replied: “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists.  Oh, they were the ones who said: “We’re going to be out by Christmas. And Christmas would come, and go. Then they’d say: “We’re going to be out by Easter. And Easter would come and go. And then Thanksgiving, and by the next Christmas they died of a broken heart.  

Sandune2This is a very important lesson.  You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end-which you can never afford to lose-with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality whatever that might be.”               

Odds are most of us can name someone in our lives who despite daunting, perhaps even dire circumstances appears perpetually upbeat and their outlook doesn’t appear to be feigned.  They inspire us and fill us with awe by their positive outlook and courage.  

A quiet, persistent optimism that is based solidly in reality without losing hope provides more ease, wellness, and better decision making than a bucket load of wishful thinking while denying what’s here right now.   

 

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