Optimism is a Gift

Charlie Munford
11 min readNov 5, 2021

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I’ve been considering what the effects of pessimism and optimism are on different people, and I suspect they are highly dependent on one’s status. Let’s just define pessimism as the view that in general the system promotes evil, and optimism as the view that in general the system promotes good. Let’s also set aside for the moment the question of which one, optimism or pessimism, is true, since I think the effects of the beliefs can be studied without deciding that question one way or another.

Here’s the idea:

When one is successful, pessimism is a benefit; when one has failed, pessimism hurts.

When one is successful, optimism is a burden; when one has failed, optimism is a gift.

Pessimism

Let’s take the first part of the first maxim to begin, since it’s the most common these days. Successful people, those with all of their needs met financially and socially, with ample safety and security and lots of options, often profess a profound pessimism about the ability of the system as a whole to deliver opportunities to the oppressed. Before deciding whether that view is true or not, let’s ask what the effect of expressing this view may be on the niche of the successful person. In their case, since they have succeeded, it’s clear that they don’t mean to apply the observation to themselves and their own experience. They can’t be signaling that “what happened to me was impossible,” because what happened that made them successful has in fact happened. Presumably they are attributing their own success to luck. They must mean, then, that it is exceedingly difficult, because of various social conditions and structural patterns, for good things to happen for others. Since they do not speak from personal experience, they can use any facts they choose to support their position. When I hear this view from the mouth of a successful person, it gives me several impressions about them.

  • They are caring rather than selfish
  • They are humble about their own abilities
  • They are motivated to change the world for the better
  • They have surplus resources to spend

These positive impressions are stronger for me the greater the success of the speaker appears to be, and the more frustrated they seem to be with the failure of the system to deliver the same fortunate outcomes to others. I can only imagine that I am not alone in this feeling. This must be a consistent effect that this person is exerting on the people around them. It must be that everywhere this person goes, projecting this attitude is reassuring people in their environment that they have these qualities. And this must be all the more potent if they do in fact have these qualities and are not simply posing or virtue-signaling.

What could be the effect of this on the success of the speaker? I can only imagine that there is a positive feedback between one’s success and the extent to which others adopt positive views about you. In other words, the effect on others created by these sincere expressions of pessimism must be on the whole positive for the speaker. And this explains why these expressions are so common in highly successful circles, and in publications targeted to people with high status. But we have not yet said anything about the effect of these expressions on others.

Now let’s consider what happens when a person who has failed encounters pessimism. Let’s imagine that we are a person who cannot meet their own needs financially or socially, with precarious security, and few options. When I imagine myself in this predicament, and having failed catastrophically at least once in my life I can easily do so, I recognize that the set of ideas that tells me that there is no way out, that the doors are closed, that the deck is stacked against me and that disaster awaits has a very different effect. Pessimism in the niche of the successful person was relatively abstract and benign, but now from the point of view of the failed person it suddenly becomes very personal and concrete. Now I have a general explanation for why I myself find myself on the bottom, why I can’t escape, and why all efforts to do so are likely to be fruitless. Pessimism in the failed person’s niche is like lead weights for a drowning victim. These poisonous effects are all the stronger if the theory describes the conditions promoting my failure:

  • They are ubiquitous across the world
  • They have existed throughout history
  • They stem from my intrinsic physical attributes
  • They are being reinforced by others’ success

The successful person lives as an exception to the rule they promote, and so they insulate themselves from having to reference their own experiences in justifying their theory. The failed person, on the other hand, lives as a shining example of their pessimism. Theory and practice meet in the failed pessimist. The failed person feels that they are useless, that they are not desirable, and pessimism agrees. Everyone loves to be right, and this makes the theory of pessimism nearly irresistible for the person who has failed. Their own failure becomes part of something greater, a ubiquitous injustice that permeates the whole world for all time. The failed pessimist can also spread the explanation far and wide and use it to predict the failure of others in their environment, and since people who have failed often live among others who have failed, they will be proven right again and again. But the risk of entertaining this point of view as a failed person is the obvious danger that one will take it seriously. The sincere pessimist may abandon the energetic struggle to succeed, which is always harrowing and difficult. Pessimism is always waiting as an alternative to the pain of striving for success.

Let’s consider the effects on others of expressions of pessimism from the failed person. When I hear a person who has failed express profound pessimism, I think to myself:

  • They deserve sympathy
  • They have pride
  • They are defiant, but if their theory is correct,
  • They are unlikely to succeed

So the failed person receives sympathy from those in their niche, and they receive lowered expectations of success, which reduces the painful pressure to achieve it. It’s easy to see how this may encourage their pessimism, but it’s hard to see how this brings them much success. The disparate effects of pessimism in the niche of the successful person and the failed person makes the pessimistic mode synergistic between the very successful and the deeply failed. The successful person reaps a social benefit from their pessimism while the failed person pays a very personal cost.

In addition, the more different the successful person and the failed person are from one another physically and socially, the stronger this synergy becomes. The synergy depends, after all, on the successful person not becoming a plausible model for success for the failed person. If this happens, pessimism will collapse and the failed person will have a clear model to adopt to succeed. If the successful person establishes a strict barrier of identity between them and the failed person, such as the concept of race or gender or some other division, then this can serve to prevent the successful person from slipping into the identity of the failed person and ruining the synergy of pessimism. These boundaries must be reinforced at all costs. The most destructive thing for pessimism is for a failed person to encounter a successful role model. This synergy of pessimism benefits the successful person and it costs the failed person dearly, but because those costs are in the form of lost opportunities the successful person can avoid acknowledging them and continue to reap the social benefits of pessimism.

Optimism

Now let’s look at the second maxim. What are the effects of optimism for the successful person? The successful person has by definition already succeeded, so when they express optimism they have to be very careful. They have accumulated the ability to satisfy their needs, and that already puts them in a position of moral hazard, especially if there are any pessimists around. Pessimists believe that the system that gave them their social and financial resources are unfair, and the optimist is daring to disagree. Since their theory also happens to explain their own life experience directly, people cannot help but assume that they speak only from that life experience, and not through empathy for others. “Easy for them to say,” the failed person nearby may think. If the optimism of a successful person is too unbounded, it will seem to say to others:

  • They are self-centered rather than caring
  • They have a high opinion of their own abilities
  • They are satisfied with the system that made them successful
  • They are unlikely to be generous with their resources

The effect of these thoughts in the minds of others in one’s niche would not seem to be helpful to one’s success, even if one has already encountered quite a bit of success already. Perhaps whatever drove one’s success in the first place will continue to prevail, but these particular ideas in the minds of those around you will tend to hinder it. Who likes a self-centered person, or a person who doesn’t care about others? Who likes it when the winners brag about winning, and claim that they won because of their own abilities rather than by sheer luck? This runs counter to the moral impulse in humanity…we love a gracious winner even more than a gracious loser. The more satisfied one seems with the system as a successful person, the more one runs the risk of appearing morally disgusting to others. This effect must also be more pronounced the more pessimists there are in one’s social environment. In fact, it would seem that if one wanted to be safe to express this sort of optimism one would be well-advised to avoid pessimists altogether and surround oneself with successful optimists, perhaps in some gated community or something like that. So the expression of optimism, for a successful person, is fraught with peril. It may impose a social burden, and to avoid that social burden the successful person may resort to evasive tactics or deception or even social segregation.

Now let’s consider the effects of optimism on someone who has failed. The optimist is not arguing that the system works only for them; the definition of optimism we began with is that it is the view that the system in general produces good. No one could say that a system is better if some people are systematically excluded from good, rather than that everyone is included. The optimist is arguing that there is no such strict exclusion, that there are opportunities for success available, that the door is open, that there is a way out, and that dreams are realizable for everyone.

How does optimism deal with failure? The optimist is not offering an explanation for failure; failure may be explained by bad luck or by lack of knowledge or by misaligned motives or by malice. These explanations are not part of optimism’s claims. They can be projected onto the optimist, or the optimist may be also a self-righteous asshole as well as an optimist, but none of this is required by optimism itself. In my opinion, the most sincere optimism is the recognition that we are driven by our niches and we have no agency, but that the universe is opening opportunities wider and wider for all of us through the creation of better knowledge. This is a physicalist’s version of the old monotheistic view that God is in control of our lives and will not let harm befall us, unless it is in the plan for achieving a greater good for all beings. In this context failure is a temporary setback, not to be dismissed or minimized, but to be suffered and endured with forbearance and hope for the future.

Optimism for the failed person is the very breath of life. When I am suffering, I don’t want to be told that my suffering is eternal, based on my very identity which I can never change, and is consistent with the way the universe has always been and always will be. I want to be encouraged with the idea that there is a transcendent reality that is coming to fruition in the near future, for me and for others like me. I want to be seen by others as a way to a better world, as part of a solution, as an integral important piece of a beautiful unfolding history. I want to be celebrated and cherished and I want others to depend on me for their own needs. I want to be desired. I want my failure to be painful for others not because they expected it, but because they did not expect it and they are shocked and disappointed that it has happened. I want my failure to be part of a temporary and incongruous anomaly in the universe, not part of its very foundational logic. All these wishes are pouring from me when I fail, and they are so strong that I am afraid to voice them for fear I will be ridiculed for my vulnerability and my needs. When I fail I am weak by definition, and the only way to protect myself from further harm may be to appear strong and to hide my pleading with the universe from shame. But this is a farcical posture; we all know failure when we see it, and we know how it feels.

The synergy between a successful optimist and a failed person is the mirror image of the pessimistic synergy. The synergy of optimism depends on finding common ground, on sharing identities and eroding boundaries. The synergy of optimism depends on imagining oneself in each other’s roles, and serving as models for one another despite differences in history or status. A role model is by definition someone with a higher status with whom one can identify, and a role model is the ultimate fountain of optimism. It depends on reducing the importance of arbitrary distinctions between identities, power dynamics, social norms, and prejudices of all sorts. Optimism seeks the solutions, the escape routes, the possibilities, and the promising ventures. Optimism refuses the idea that the future will resemble the past in any regard; it predicts open-ended change and unlimited discoveries of new resources. Optimism sees knowledge as the key promoter of justice and fairness, and it predicts that knowledge will become cheaper and more ubiquitous in the near future. It understands that the reason for this is that the presence of knowledge recursively enhances our ability to produce more of it, so we are embarking on a wonderful adventure up an exponential curve.

To an optimist there is in principle no resource that cannot be produced given knowledge. As David Deutsch writes, “anything that is not prohibited by the laws of physics is possible, given knowledge.” Any form of matter can be transmuted into any other; we know this because it happens in all the stars in the heavens. The stars are driven by fusion, reactions which we have learned to produce and control right here on earth, and that we learn to use in a more useful fashion every year. These reactions may soon result in nearly limitless energy production driven by the fuel of helium, which is one of the most common elements in the universe, while emitting as its primary waste product pure water. There is also no social problem that is insulated from the effects of knowledge. This is why in nearly every domain we can measure, life for humans has improved in an increasingly sharp curve over the past five hundred years. The only obstacle to the continuation of this process of the realization of our dreams is the existence of pessimism and our feeble efforts to contain it. But even those problems, I believe, will eventually be solved.

Optimism is a gift.

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Charlie Munford

Charlie Munford is a writer based in New Orleans who explores the meaning of living systems and the boundaries of our ecological knowledge.