Be practical. Be realistic. Be careful. Don’t trust others.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. I don’t want to get burned or get my hopes up unrealistically.
But I also don’t want to live my life feeling like I can’t trust and hope.
We learned in school about realistic optimism: being optimistic in a realistic way. I think those authors were providing caution to people like me who tend to assume the best intentions from others and the best possible outcome.
I understand the theory and even agree with it to some degree. However, there are two problems with that concept from my perspective. First, what is realistic to one person is unrealistic to another. In other words, we are not a good judge of our own reality. On one hand, we might be unrealistically optimistic, but we may likewise be unrealistically negative or pessimistic. I know anecdotally that a large number of us have a negative ticker tape dialogue running through our heads: I’m not good enough. I’m not deserving. I’m unattractive. No one likes me. I’m not deserving. I’m not smart/good at math/good at athletics. I don’t belong. I’m not loved. We notice those things that confirm our belief (confirmation bias) but ignore the data that refute it. In so doing, we create our own reality.
Running through my great, 50-year old wisdom is my ticker tape that I don’t belong and that I don’t have many friends. I used to actually say that aloud. And I would always notice when I’m not included or when I’m alone, each observation confirming my belief. But some time ago I decided to challenge that belief and look for instances where I do belong, when my friends reach out to me, when I’m included or even celebrated and seen authentically by my friends. Back then, I might’ve thought it was realistically optimistic to hope that I would have outside my best friend circle (3-4 people generally; this fact did not sway my belief mind you) another circle of at most 3-4 modestly good friends.
As you might guess, when I started intentionally looking for signs of friendship and affection, I started to see it everywhere. Now I feel I have friendship in huge abundance – not that I’m ‘popular’ by any means – but that I have a wide circle of friends and affectionate acquaintances. The graduate program that I’ve almost just completed expanded my circle of friends by more than 37 people. In the old days, my ticker tape would’ve had me feeling like they’re not friends/they don’t care for me like the other classmates/we’ll never stay in contact. I’m not naive enough to believe that all of us will be buddies forever, but with some effort I will be able to maintain contact and friendship with several of them and even expand the circle to other alumni and people in the positive psychology community.
In addition to not being a good judge of our own reality, the second problem with realistic optimism is that it will cause us to play it too safe sometimes. Innovation takes leaps of faith, and if we all quit dreaming, where would our dreams be?
I can hear the naysayers out there saying that I’ll be disappointed or hurt by being hopeful or optimistic. My answer to that is that I’d rather put myself out there to be hurt and disappointed on the rare occasion than to live my life without trust, intimacy, love or hope. Yes, I’ve been burned, but I can honestly say that I’m more likely to be pleasantly surprised. Life is not supposed to be free from pain or disappointment. It’s part of the human condition and to close ourselves to that pain also requires that we close ourselves to pleasure and joy.
So when someone accuses me of being a starry-eyed idealist, I thank them for the compliment and say I would’t have it any other way.