Thursday, July 05, 2012

I am the grumpiest optimist I know

Having weighed in on busyness the other day, I thought I'd take a crack at "optimism." This article, too, is from the NYT. It's by Jane Brody, who I generally think is a good person and a purveyor of useful advice, although the chirpy puritanism of her columns always puts me on edge. I also rather dislike the Good Examples she often serves up, as in this one--as if all we must do is be like these wonderful people (who often include Brody herself)--and all will be well.

OK, I know: would I take health advice from an ironic, crotchety health reporter? Yes, I would, but probably others wouldn't. And certainly the column format is part of the problem. In the piece in question, for instance, along with the Good Examples, we get a series of bullet points on how to be an optimist. To wit:
  • Face your fears. [...]
  • Re-evaluate events in your everyday life. [...]
  • Practice mindful meditation. [...]
  • Take control over how you feel instead of letting feelings control you. [...]
  • Laugh. [...]
  • Be fully engaged. [...]
All six points include1-2 sentence explanations, which I'm leaving out. So the program is not quite this simple. But, you know, bullet points.

Oh, palm to forehead! If only I had known about these bullet points! How could I have been so foolish, and been a pessimist? Optimism is so easy, and therefore I, a sometimes pessimist, am a jerk. If only I had known to laugh, to be engaged!

Here's the thing. I agree with these bullet points; and in the course of a lengthy treatment for depression, followed by finding a really cool guy to marry, and then very gradually figuring out what kind of life I wanted to live, and how to live it, I practiced all of them, and I continue to try to do so. I think being happy is better than being sad. But not because it's my duty to be happy. Being sad is not a failure--it's often an accurate and sensitive reading of your situation, and of the world more generally. If anything, being sad feels like the proper duty, except that it prevents you, often, from trying to make things better. And it sucks. So it's all kind of a feedback loop, and part of the problem is this terminology.

I propose we dispense with the terms "happy" and "optimistic" as the stated goals for ourselves and the surly loved ones we wish to help. As this article sort of gets around to explaining, what we are really talking about is "confidence" and "persistence." A book called The Growth Mindset also talks about the centrality of persistence, and the new, confidence-building feedback loop that's created when we train ourselves--over time--to persevere.

In other words, optimism is not an attitude, but a practice. Sayings like "It's all in your attitude" give us the wrong idea--that we are thinking or perceiving wrongly, and all we have to do is make ourselves see the glass half full. This leads, in my experience, to a whole lot of mental self-kicking (see above), which makes the pessimism and paralysis worse. But persistence is often not delightful or easy. It's hard. That is the point. It is not a matter of flipping a switch in your brain. It means sticking with it for the long haul. It means learning to tolerate the unpleasantness of slogging through obstacles, even or especially when a reward is not certain. Yes, there are ways to do that, including meditation and laughing and so on. But the difficulty of persisting, especially for those who aren't used to it, somehow gets left out of these "just do it" articles.

I speak, of course, for the less chipper beings of the universe. I gather some people are either born with or endowed early on with persistence and confidence and even sunniness, and they can't understand why people like me are talking about having to learn these traits. Why wouldn't you just go out and get what you want? I can't really answer. But I also can't see how this column could help the type of person whom it's aimed at. Sunny just-do-it-ism is either going to bounce right off them, or make them feel worse.

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