Hating Life? Try "Optimalism"


As a longtime pessimist, I really hate hearing how much healthier optimists are. Now Time claims that the best outlook is actually “optimalism,” which entails being optimistic while remaining “in touch with reality.”

Harvard positive psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar tells Time writer Alice Park that optimalists are “not those who believe everything happens for the best, but those who make the best of things that happen.” Ben-Shahar describes exercises he calls PRP:

When he feels down—say, after giving a bad lecture—he grants himself permission (P) to be human. He reminds himself that not every lecture can be a Nobel winner; some will be less effective than others. Next is reconstruction (R). He parses the weak lecture, learning lessons for the future about what works and what doesn’t. Finally, there’s perspective (P), which involves acknowledging that in the grand scheme of life, one lecture really doesn’t matter.

Yeah, but, says the pessimist in me, what if your problem isn’t just a bad lecture? What if all your work sucks and nobody loves you and you’re dying of syphilis, plus also there’s global warming and the economic crisis? Being a true pessimist doesn’t just mean beating up on yourself about bad job performance — it can mean a constant feeling of doom. How do you PRP that shit?

Park also writes that “being optimistic doesn’t mean shutting out sad or painful emotions.” In a study of HIV-positive men whose partners had passed away, “the men who allowed themselves to grieve while also seeking to accept the death were better able to bounce back from the tragedy.” If accepting death and sadness is good for me, can’t I also accept pessimism? After all, pessimism has done a lot for me over the years. It made me go to the hospital when I had appendicitis. It made me save money back when I had a 9-to-5, so that when my brakes and battery and alternator failed (as I totally knew they would), I could pay to get them fixed. And it makes me think a lot about tragedy and illness and death, which I think makes me more empathetic to other people’s struggles.

Probably a positive psychologist would say I should learn to embrace the aspects of pessimism that help me, while jettisoning the ones that don’t. Interestingly, Park says that “the leading optimism and happiness experts consider themselves born pessimists. But if they have learned over time and with lots of practice to become more hopeful, take heart.” I’m working on this. In the meantime, I’ll stick to googling disease symptoms while disinfecting my bathroom and stockpiling canned food for the coming apocalypse. Fuck optimalism, at least I’m prepared.

A Primer for Pessimists [Time]

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