ShrinkWrapped has a recent post on optimism and pessimism which discusses the reasons to be optimistic and/or pessimistic on a number of issues.
This made me start to think about my own perspective on a number of issues, including the Iraq war and the war on terror.
People often accuse me of being overly optimistic about life; and they have also predicted that I will suffer intense disillusion because of it someday. I readily agree to the first assertion, but have yet to suffer the dire consequences they anticipate for me in the second.
I suppose this outlook--besides being a significant part of my psychological makeup--is also one of the foundations of my political outlook. It represents one side of the classic case of "the glass is half empty vs. the glass is half full" conundrum.
Depending on how you look at it; and on your psychological perspective, the world can be a glass "half full" or "half empty. Those who are hopeful/optimistic see it one way (half full); those who are defeatist/pessimistic see it the other (half empty). [Note: those who don't bother to look at all, are generally in some sort of denial or inhabit a fantasy world of their own.] Often, the optimist and the pessimist are looking at exactly the same thing, but their psyches interpret what they see in somewhat different fashions.
Since optimism and pessimism are primarily psychological, are there any reasons for an individual to cultivate one perspective over the other?
It turns out thatIt turns out that there are data that support optimism and hope as having a positive impact on individual health, mortality, and coping; as well as predicting positive outcomes in a variety of situations.
Optimism is positively and highly correlated with mastery and self-esteem. It is negatively correlated with anxiety and neuroticism. The correlations appear to be higher for women than for men.
Various tests that measure optimism are strongly correlated with reported use of particular coping strategies such as emotional regulation strategies (sublimation, humor, and anticipation) and strongly negatively correlated with avoidant coping strategies (such as fantasy, acting-out, repression, projection, hypochondriasis and passive-aggression).
Optimism was also found in some studies to improve health and lead to substantially better illness outcomes and longevity; while pessimism was found to predispose to illness and to increase mortality. As one researcher commented, "It confirmed our common-sense belief. It tells us that mind and body are linked and that attitude has an impact on the final outcome — death."
There is likely a strong biological component to both optimism and pessimism. There are pros and cons to both styles. Optimism taken to expremes can represent a denial of reality and unacceptable pain. Pessimism taken to extremes leads to depression and self-fulfilling prophecy because it focuses only on the negative and see catastrophes everywhere. Further, pessimism and its partner hopelessness, can sap the will and prevent the individual from taking those steps necessary to achieve success, and thus ensures failure.
I would submit that genuine optimists are not in psychological denial. They see the situation for what it is, yet are also able to mobilize the energy and effort necessary to be able to push through, persevere and complete a task despite setbacks. A healthy dose of optimism can be uplifting and hopeful.
Achieving a balance of being realistic and hopeful can be a challenge. A perfect example of unhealthy optimism is the gambler who always believes that his risks will result in winning. It is easy to see that this is more than optimistic; it is delusional, because the individual denies the reality of statistics and chance inherent in gambling and can grossly overestimate his/her odds of winning.
The huge advantage of the optimist becomes clear when it enables an individual to face reality in all its unpleasant aspects unflinchingly and take it on. The optimist will work to identify strategies that have a potential for success and be much more likely to implement them. The optimist, because he or she is focused on success, will be quicker to abandon a failing strategy and substitute one with a greater chance of working.
While being optimistic does not guarantee success since it is only a psychological state; if success is possible, the optimist will have a great chance of finding it.
Pessimists on the other hand, are very good at looking at reality and acknowledging the unpleasantness; but their problem is that reality makes them flinch, and they give up searching for solutions much earlier than the optimist would.
Failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for the pessimist, who in his heart believes that it is the only possible outcome anyway. They can accuse the optimist of living in a "fantasyland", but that accusation can just as easily be applied to them, since "failure" can become a fantasy as readily as "success" can.
Iraq is a case in point.
The ultimate determination of failure or success in Iraq will have to wait for other key events to unfold in that country. But amazing things have happened there already--events that the pessimists never dreamed would be possible in their wildest nightmares. The actions of the Iraqi people themselves standing upproudly with their purple fingers for a future as a free and democratic country could not have been imagined prior to 2003. These are the same people who continue to face, day after day, the reality of an enemy determined to kill them rather than let them be free and democratic. This reality did not prevented them from doing what they had to do in order to bring the blessings of Liberty to themselves and their posterity. While it is likely that many--especially in the most violent areas like Baghdad--are discouraged and continue to suffer from the mindless killing, most have not given up. They understand that the terrorists will never accept an optimistic vision that includes freedom and self-determination in Iraq.
Their agenda includes only oppression and death, Allah be praised. One could say that they are optimistic about that particular insanity--and they have reason to be because they understand how to manipulate the defeatests in this country.
The pessimists and defeatists (better known as Democrats) would have us pack up and go home without completing the job; abandoning the Iraqis and the future that they are now able to see clearly. The lunatic fringe of pessimists are perfectly willing to embrace failure because they care little about bringing freedom to that part of the world and cannot grasp how doing so will benefit their little quest to remake America into their socialist utopia. The Democrats are only narcissistically concerned with how to regain power and live in the White House again.
Both understand is that if they can embarasses Bush and makes him look bad; and if they make sure that the death in war of any soldier is hysterically exploited to mean "doom, doom, doom" then it will to make their "real enemy" (and that enemy is not connected with the terrorists we fight). They manage to do this and optimistically spin their behavior as "supporting the troops", even as they take the valor and sacrifices those troops make for this country and transform them into just another victim group the Democrats can champion.
The way of the optimist is to persevere and keep the eyes on the prize (an Iraqi Democracy in the Middle East). Failure to achieve our strategic goals may in fact result from our efforts, but it is most certainly not a given. And there is ample evidence after two major democratic votes in the face of threatened terrorism, that the Iraqi people are predominantly optimistic about their chances. This optimism is also present in the military personnel who work every day with the Iraqi people. They can see the positive impact of their efforts, and thus their optimism is reinforced. There is no question that the country has a long way to go to become a true democracy--but even in Kurdistan where progress has been phenomenol, it has taken over a decade to achieve the kind of stability they have created there.
It might be cynically argued that the Democrats' and left's overwhelmingly pessismistic vision and hopelessnes regarding both Iraq and the war on Islamofascism in general, is based on their optimism that taking the low road and undermining President Bush and his Administration will bring them back to power in American politics.
I remain optimistic that this will not be the case.