"Realistic Optimism" Is My Recommendation

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

"Optimism" is a strongly emoted and misunderstood term. During my last family reunion, we had a spirited debate about this particular issue. My sister-in-law was fired up by Sophia Dembling's article Expect the Worst! The pessimist's road to success published in the May 2005 issue of Sky. The author appears to imply that pessimists succeed because they work harder and are overall better prepared.

But, you can also expect the best and prepare for the worst. The Murphy's Law, "Everything that can go wrong will," is true, but act as if you are bound to succeed.

It helps to think that the universe is looking out for you. Motivate yourself with the smell of success, but anticipate hurdles but believe in your capacity to overcome those hurdles. You can have the best of both worlds. Don't become overly pessimistic and overestimate the obstacles. Likewise don't become overly optimistic and underestimate the problems. Be realistic and accurate in your estimation.

Believing in miracles is the ultimate form of optimism (and faith). If you don't believe in miracles, you are not a realist! Miracles do happen. But you can't just sit there and wait for a miracle to happen. The universe helps those who help themselves.

Likewise, if you don't believe in spontaneous healing, you are not a realist. Spontaneous healing does occur, but you can't just sit there doing nothing and waiting for your disease to heal spontaneously. Common sense dictates that you do your best in taking care of yourself and following your treatment, diet, exercise, etc. If you remain hopeful and optimistic while doing all those things, you might do better.

Without a positive expectation, you are not likely to witness a miracle or that spontaneous healing. If you are a pessimist, you are not likely to invest a whole lot of energy in desiring or praying for that spontaneous healing or that miracle. Expecting the worst outcome might be detrimental to your health. Your body listens to every word you say. I seem to recall there is a book with that exact title.

Suppose you are down with the flu and you start thinking you are headed for pneumonia. You just might be conveying a wrong message to your body and mind. On the other hand, if you have a history of respiratory complications, taking precautions against pneumonia is realistic and smart. That can be defined as "defensive pessimism" and can be helpful to you.

I have emphysema. In case of an acute exacerbation of symptoms, I must treat it immediately and aggressively. So, I always travel with corticosteroid inhalant, antibiotics and all kinds of nasal and oral antihistamines. But I remain very optimistic that with proper rest and precautions, I will come back without an episode of acute exacerbation.

There is a delicate balance between "defensive pessimism" and "cautious optimism." I try to be cautiously optimistic in order to best utilize my abilities. .

Say, for example, that you have a flight to catch and by the time you reach the airport, you are really cutting it close. If you are a pessimist, you would perhaps say to yourself, "There is no way I can make it to the gate on time." Such a pessimistic thought would be as if you had injected lead into your feet and slow you down. If you are an optimist, you might say to yourself, "Maybe the flight is late or if the door is closed they might still let me in." Such an optimistic thought would serve to put speed into your feet.

In a similar situation, once I requested an airport officer to help me. He called the gate on his cell phone and drove me across the airport ground right to the aircraft, and the crew opened the door and took me in. I made the bold move of requesting the officer because of my optimistic belief that good things can happen. Had I been a pessimist, I would have felt resigned to the "fact" without trying.

The term "pessimism" is derived from the Latin word, "passimus" which means the "worst." Therefore, pessimism refers to the belief system that our world is the worst possible world and that the evil in life outweighs the good. The doctrine of pessimism says you should expect the worst possible outcome under all circumstances.

The term "optimism" is derived from the Latin word, "optimus" which means the "best." Therefore, optimism refers to the belief system that given the realities of the world our world is doing the best it can, and that the good in life outweighs the bad.

Optimism inspires us to always entertain hope and expect the best that our circumstances can allow. Hope is good for you. Hopelessness can shrink the heart; coronary arteries to be precise. Hope, on the other hand, can help to open your arteries.

In view of the original meanings of the words "pessimism" and "optimism" what would you like to be, an optimist or a pessimist?

If you have any problem in answering the question, let's add another equation. Here is a teaching from the ancient Kahuna tradition of the Hawaiian islands: "The world is what you think it is!" If you think the world is good, it will be good to you; if you think the world is bad, it will be bad to you.

We on the mainland say something similar, which is, "Those who think they can, they can! Those who think they can't, they can't!"

Be cautiously optimistic and a realistic optimist. You can't go wrong, I promise!

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Copyright 2005, Mind Publications 
Posted July 2005


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