We have historically divided mindsets into three unwavering categories:
1. Optimists (Or, those who see only the best in a given situation)
2. Pessimists (Or, those who see only the worst in a given situation), and
3. Realists (Those who claim to evaluate situations without placing any value judgment on them whatsoever)
And it is, naturally, fashionable to call yourself a realist these days.
After all, nobody wants to be the Debby Downer pessimist. But nobody wants to be the naive, gullible optimist either.
Except here’s the thing about ‘realism’ – it’s a loaded identity to claim. Humans are almost entirely incapable of evaluating things objectively. This is a basic survival instinct – we are born with egocentric worldviews. We pick up on whichever information best guarantees our survival and we hone in on it. We avoid danger. We move toward security.
Everything that happens to us is inherently neutral and yet we analyze it through a series of psychological lenses that help us understand which role these events play in relation to our end goal of self-preservation.
But here’s the thing about surveying situations ‘as they are’ – every situation we’re surveying is a memory by the time we’re reflecting on it. And memory is highly subjective.
We cannot possibly remember everything that happens to us – our brains would be entirely consumed by recollections of our friends blinking lazily and strangers fidgeting with their hair while they waited in line for coffee. And so we must select what we process and remember.
And this is where optimism or pessimism comes into play.
Human memory is associative. What this means is that we are constantly searching for patterns within our own minds – and we are best at recalling information that is consistent with the patterns we’ve historically recognized.
Our worldviews are formed and perpetuated by which information we choose to focus on and therefore which information works its way into our long-term memories. The situations that we focus on become the patterns we use to construct our worldviews.
We choose optimism when we choose to filter patterns of positivity, strength and love into our long-term memories. We choose pessimism when we choose to filter patterns of pain, grief and suffering into our long-term memories.
And these patterns become the stories that we tell ourselves about the future.
When I look back on my life, I can remember the person I fell in love with who cheated on me, and I can tell myself a story about distrust and pain. I can let my memory decide that people are inherently foul and that I ought not to trust them moving forward.
Or I can remember the friends who picked me up off the floor and reassembled me when I was in pieces. And I can tell myself a story of love and reconstruction going forward. I can tell myself that people will be there to catch even the furthest, hardest fall. And I can let that be the pattern that I recognize.
I can remember all of the times when I failed. When I wasn’t smart enough or strong enough or determined enough to pull through for myself. And I can tell myself a story of defeat. One in which I am always the victim and the big, bad world is always working against me.
Or I can remember my triumphs. I can remember the times when I fought hard enough to pull through, when failure was a temporary parking spot, when the tides eventually turned and the fortunes finally shifted in my favor. And I can tell myself a story of perseverance. One in which I am always stronger than the obstacles that stand in my way.
In order to make sense of the world around us, we must assume that the future will resemble the past. And so we must be careful about which pasts we choose to remember.
Telling yourself that life will forevermore be shitty and difficult and negative is a self-fulfilling prophecy because what you are saying to yourself is, ‘No matter what happens, I will find the shitty, difficult, negative components of it and hone in on those.’
And the opposite of this is also true.
Telling yourself that life will forevermore be joyful and pleasant and positive is a self-fulfilling prophecy because what you are saying to yourself is ‘No matter what happens, I will find the humor and the camaraderie and the redemption and I will hone in on that.’
We seek out information that is consistent with the worldviews we’ve crafted and then we perpetuate those thought patterns.
As a result, pain begets pain.
Suffering begets suffering.
But love also begets love.
Curiosity begets fascination.
Openness begets experience.
And optimism begets joy.
The more we choose patterns of strength and openness and love, the more we seemingly stumble upon these qualities. Because our brains have been trained to pick up on them. Our minds have become wired for joy.
At the end of the day, almost any perspective we take on a given situation is a realistic one.
It’s realistic to remember pain and expect pain in the future.
It’s realistic to remember joy and expect joy in the future.
What it comes down to is which of these mindsets we want to move through our lives armed with.
Because our lives will be inherently laden with pain and struggle and disappointment but they will also be absolutely overwhelmed by strength and opportunity and love.
Which of these realities you focus on is up to you.
But I choose the optimistic approach. Now and forevermore.