Hating Life? Try "Optimalism"

Illustration for article titled Hating Life? Try Optimalism

As a longtime pessimist, I really hate hearing how much healthier optimists are. Now Time claims that the best outlook is actually "optimalism," which entails being optimistic while remaining "in touch with reality."

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Harvard positive psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar tells Time writer Alice Park that optimalists are "not those who believe everything happens for the best, but those who make the best of things that happen." Ben-Shahar describes exercises he calls PRP:

When he feels down—say, after giving a bad lecture—he grants himself permission (P) to be human. He reminds himself that not every lecture can be a Nobel winner; some will be less effective than others. Next is reconstruction (R). He parses the weak lecture, learning lessons for the future about what works and what doesn't. Finally, there's perspective (P), which involves acknowledging that in the grand scheme of life, one lecture really doesn't matter.

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Yeah, but, says the pessimist in me, what if your problem isn't just a bad lecture? What if all your work sucks and nobody loves you and you're dying of syphilis, plus also there's global warming and the economic crisis? Being a true pessimist doesn't just mean beating up on yourself about bad job performance — it can mean a constant feeling of doom. How do you PRP that shit?

Park also writes that "being optimistic doesn't mean shutting out sad or painful emotions." In a study of HIV-positive men whose partners had passed away, "the men who allowed themselves to grieve while also seeking to accept the death were better able to bounce back from the tragedy." If accepting death and sadness is good for me, can't I also accept pessimism? After all, pessimism has done a lot for me over the years. It made me go to the hospital when I had appendicitis. It made me save money back when I had a 9-to-5, so that when my brakes and battery and alternator failed (as I totally knew they would), I could pay to get them fixed. And it makes me think a lot about tragedy and illness and death, which I think makes me more empathetic to other people's struggles.

Probably a positive psychologist would say I should learn to embrace the aspects of pessimism that help me, while jettisoning the ones that don't. Interestingly, Park says that "the leading optimism and happiness experts consider themselves born pessimists. But if they have learned over time and with lots of practice to become more hopeful, take heart." I'm working on this. In the meantime, I'll stick to googling disease symptoms while disinfecting my bathroom and stockpiling canned food for the coming apocalypse. Fuck optimalism, at least I'm prepared.

A Primer for Pessimists [Time]

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DISCUSSION

vernonbabba
SlipcoversFTW

I am at heart a pessimist. It has done me no favors. Here's what I have figured out after nearly half a century of expecting the worst-

1. I suck at projection. It's rare that the tragedy I plan for actually occurs. The really bad stuff that happens always comes totally out of left field. This makes me feel a little stupid. Example- I was really worked up about some potential drama- then we had an earthquake. In Kentucky.

2. If the thing I worry about happens, it is never as bad as I expected. This also makes me feel stupid.

3. Therefore it begins to occur to me that I do not control the universe with my mind. This is really a big relief to me, since I am underequipped for the task.

I know people who seem to be born with the talent to make the best of anything. They baffle and amaze me. I'm old and tired and less willing to be miserable these days, and this attitude attracts me. The more I pretend to be like them, the easier it gets, and the result is that my life is really better. Go figure.

I may as well dwell on the many good things I have and just enjoy the day. I do this as much as possible, considering my naturally bitter, black heart.

Regarding clinical depression and meds- I'm not a doctor. I can only speak from personal experience, of which I have plenty. I only want to share one briefly.

About three years ago, my husband had a bit of a health meltdown. It was a complicated situation. He is not a "melter". It didn't take long for me to see that among his many and various complaints, he was depressed. An internist, 2 neurologists, a priest, several siblings and close friends, an accupuncturist and an allergy specialist all said so too. Medication was suggested and rejected. Our lives literally turned upside down. This went on for nearly two years. Our family life was in chaos, our kids were worried and confused, my carreer was on hold, our finances in disarray, our social life over.

Finally, we reached the breaking point, and he agreed to address the depression medically. He was a different person within a matter of weeks. He took the antidepressant for 4 months, and then stopped. He has been off medication for 5 months now and seems to be doing fine. He is once again the happy and productive person we all recognize, and I'm being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.