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From the Archives: Optimism vs. Cynicism, which is more untrue

Posted Jan 07 2009 4:33pm

First Published on March 16, 2008

The classic differentiator between optimism and cynicism is the half glass of water. It takes a neutral fact and adds a judgement that tells us much about the observers life view, half empty or half full. I think it is possible for either view to overstep its bounds, be it Pollyanna type platitudes or cynical misrepresentations of the motivations of others leading to prejudice and division. One popular truism in the cynical worldview is that it is the same people doing both, that the dreamer is always destined to become the cynic. I do believe this is a possibility and a danger, but I question the underlying assumption. Are optimists just fooling themselves? Do they become cynical when they face up to the truth? There is a certain school of thought, ascribing cynicism to realism with a certain self righteousness about “keeping it real.” Is this valid?

I was recently listening to RadioLab, a newly discovered, mind stretching podcast, on the subject of deception. The had a couple of scientists describe a social experiment from the 70s about ” lying to yourself.” They came up with a list of terribly personal questions that no one would want to say yes to, but they figured were universally true. Questions like “Do you enjoy your bowel movements?” or “Have you ever doubted your sexual adequacy?” and “Have you ever thought of committing suicide just to get back at someone?”

The study showed that people who answered No, to all these questions were more likely to be happy and successful in life. Thus, they concluded, people who lie to themselves are happier. I think there are a lot of conclusions that could be drawn from this study, mostly about the scientists, but I’m not sure that self deception leads to success is one of them.

What the researchers neglected to think of was self-deception in the emotionally unhealthy individual. In the throes of depression, you tell yourself lies every day. Thoughts about being completely worthless hammer away at your self esteem. Your mind thinks in exaggerations or absolutes, which are almost never true. For example,

I cannot be happy unless everyone likes me.
If I do what is expected of me, my life will be wonderful.
Bad things don’t happen to good people.
Good things don’t happen to bad people.
In the end, bad people will always get punished.
If I am intelligent (or work hard), I will be successful.

What makes these untrue is the expectation that they are always true. They are too black or white, all or nothing. It is only by learning to see that these thoughts aren’t necessarily true that you can move on and be happy. The depressed person might think everyone thinks they are stupid or dislikes them. Anyone who smiles at them must be laughing at them. These are things that are often neutral or difficult to interpret and the negative bias skews them every time.

Anxiety works the same way, magnifying molehills into mountains. We imagine the worst case scenario in every scene we enter. If it doesn’t happen, we were “lucky.” For example,

  • One person at work does not like you, and tells you, so you know it’s not mistaken judgment. You then assume no one at work likes you, or you assume that you must be a terrible person if he/she does not like you.
  • You make a small mistake on a project, and assume that you will be fired when the boss finds out.
  • You try your hand at a new hobby, and it does not turn out well. You conclude, “I’m no good at anything.”

This is clearly lying to your self every bit as much as whether or not you enjoy bowel movements. I think it is clearly more so. The key in cognitive behavioral therapy isn’t to turn these thoughts into sunshiny happiness. It works by first challenging validity, removing value judgements, and if the thought is true, asking yourself, “But is this helpful.” or “What do I need to do to make it better.” This empowers you to action, keeps you in the present where you can act.

I think this kind of thinking is what makes optimists remain optimists. I seriously doubt that telling a stranger if they ever questioned their sexual prowess has much to do with what makes people successful. The self esteem to defeatedly admit such, probably does however. Maybe it is just part of the skill of “putting on a good face.” I will admit that too some extent we all wear a mask. I would contend that taking the mask too seriously and comparing others “charmed life” to your own is much more dishonest.

Maybe assuming everyone who says no is lying is also a strategy of dealing with personal inadequacies, by tearing others down rather than building yourself up. Conflating happy with delusional may have its own utility, but I can’t really call it fundamentally honest or likely to make you any more successful or happy.

I think its much more courageous and hopeful to take a look at our faults for what they are, and determine we can improve them. Certainly this is more “True” to yourself. I guess that is in the end where the rub is. Honestly, the half glass of water is neither half empty or half full. It is just a half glass of water. If we want more, we should get more, but complaining doesn’t help. Realizing what we have, and feeling gratitude, on the other hand, is a type of honesty I think most of us fall short of a great deal of the time. When we speculate on the future, all we know is really a guess. That makes anything possible, and the truth what you make it. So here’s to optimism, true to ourselves, true to life, and true to our potential.

   Tagged: anxiety, happiness, honesty, pessimism, potential, self deception, truth   
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