Tuesday, September 05, 2006


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 a 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'tbother 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 that there is data that supports 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.

The test that measures optimism is 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 sees 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 facilitates 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 reality in all its unpleasant aspects is faced unflinchingly and taken 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 the problem is that it 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 at heart believes that 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 just two short years ago. These are the same people who, day after day, must face the reality of an enemy determined to kill them rather than let them be free. This reality has not prevented them from doing what they must do in order to bring the blessings of Liberty to themselves and their posterity. They have not given up just because there are insurgents and terrorists who will not accept any optimistic vision that includes freedom and self-determination in Iraq.

The current situation--particularly with the sectarian violence and the unbridled hatred that has long simmered between Sunni and Shia--is indeed a serious setback for anyone who genuinely wants the Iraqi people to have a chance to live in a democratic and free nation. But true optimists recognize that setbacks and failures are part of life and a successful strategy must accommodate the imperfect.

But the pessimists here in our own country 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 pessimists are perfectly willing to embrace failure in Iraq as a long-term strategy and have effectively managed to somehow convince many that our strategic purpose there is hopeless. As is usual with pessimists, they don't offer much in the way of alternative ideas, preferring to wallow in negativity.

And, I don't deny that the last few months since the death of Zarqawi have been rather negative and bloody.

And yet, the optimist will persevere, acknowledging reality and adapting as necessary, keeping eyes on the prize (an Iraqi Democracy in the Middle East).

Failure to achieve our strategic goals there may, in fact. result even with the best 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.

It might be cynically argued that the Democrats' and Left's overwhelmingly pessismistic vision and hopelessnes regarding both Iraq and the war on Islamic totalitarianism 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.

But, I remain optimistic that this will not be the case-- either this November, or in 2008.

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