All fluent English speakers probably think they know what optimism means—expecting things to go well; believing that everything will work out for the best. And this is one definition of optimism among psychologists, but not the only one (see section five). What researchers agree is that optimism is good for your health, success, and happiness. Optimistic people experience less stress and illness, adopt healthier habits, and succeed socially and professionally more than pessimists. Ironically though, research also shows that pessimists tend to be more correct in their analysis of situations. In other words, pessimists are more realistic, while optimists are happier.
So, it is not surprising that optimism is not a major topic in professional philosophy. “Philosophical optimism” refers to a specific argument, by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, to the effect that we live in the best of all possible worlds. His argument depends on the assumption of God’s existence, so it has not been popular among modern philosophers (see section five).
The closest thing to an atheistic or agnostic version of this argument would be “The Anthropic Principle” which says that he universe is the way it is because it is inhabited by conscious beings. This is not necessarily an optimistic philosophy but it is the only non-faith-based explanation for why the Universe is as improbably hospitable to life as it is, which is a great mystery.
Optimism may remind you of the recent “positive thinking” fad in pop psychology. Psychologists agree that thinking positively can improve your mood and make you more successful. However, the idea that you can attract whatever you want into your life by thinking about it is not supported by any kind of science. Psychologists who treat depression, for example, say that developing specific action plans to change your life is more valuable than simply “positive thinking.”
- Optimism is not only “expecting the best” or “positive thinking”
- Optimism is less realistic than pessimism
- Optimism does increase happiness, health, and success
- Professional philosophy has little to say about optimism
II. History of Optimism
The word is based on the Latin optimus — “the best.” Leibniz argued for his religious version of optimism (see section five) in the late 17th century, and the everyday philosophy of optimism also probably became more common around or shortly before that time (although we have no psychological surveys of the population at the time, by which to judge). However, the point is that most philosophies before the 17th century were clearly pessimistic in outlook unless you count the idea that all was happening according to God’s will.
The one thing most religions before the twentieth century agreed on was that life is full of suffering. In Christianity, eternal happiness comes only after death, and in the Eastern religions, relief from suffering originally came through renunciation of all that we consider ‘normal life’—living in society, having a family, etc. Nowadays, most religions have developed more positive, less fatalistic ways to pursue enlightenment or salvation.
But this optimism about the possibilities of human existence only became common over the past few hundred years as life became easier and more promising all over the world due to improvements in health care, educations, and governance. It’s important to realize that most human beings until recently lived in conditions of horrendous poverty, disease, and often lack of freedom.
However, that’s been changing since the 17th century when reason and scientific progress became popular again, and along with them ideals like humanism and democracy, promoting the well-being of all humans, instead of only those with inherited wealth and power.
A few ancient relatives of optimism are worth noting. Ancient Buddhism said the “life is suffering” but it also said “there is an end to suffering” available through meditation. This might be comparable to the Christian ideal of salvation, except that Buddhist enlightenment can happen while you’re still alive. Perhaps even more optimistically, ancient Taoists and other mystics believed that one could transform oneself in many positive ways through certain exercises. The ancient Greeks also believed strongly in self-improvement, in a sense the main topic of Aristotle’s Ethics. But all these philosophies seem to imply a background of pessimism; they are attempts to escape or transcend the misery of existence. Pure optimism may be a natural character trait, but has rarely been a philosophical or religious belief.
III. Controversies about Optimism
Is it better to be positive or realistic? Research shows that pessimists have a more accurate grasp of reality than optimists. It is also known that depression is somewhat correlated with high intelligence; “Ignorance is bliss” So, is it better to be realistic or optimistic?
That depends on what “better” means. Research shows that optimistic people are happier, healthier, and more successful. To those of us that can’t help being realists, this is annoying; it doesn’t seem fair that people who are better at deluding themselves get to be happier! But, on the other hand, nobody knows the future, and since optimism makes people healthier and more successful, as well as happy, the realist probably loses this argument; because, optimism tends to make things turn out better, more than pessimism, so it is also the pragmatic choice. The pessimist may still predict the future more accurately; however, optimism increases the chances that things will, in fact, turn out well.
IV. Quotes about Optimism
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
― Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan
This quote captures in a nutshell certain arguments both for and against optimism. No matter how low our conditions, it is useful and inspiring to set our sights high. This argues for optimism. On the other hand, this quote nicely alludes to the fact that people who set their sights high may think of their current circumstances as “in the gutter” which is probably an overly negative judgement! Optimism about the future can be associated with negativity about the present.
“The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.” ― James Branch Cabell, The Silver Stallion
As mentioned earlier, this is probably the strongest criticism of the idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds—the implication that it can’t get any better. This alludes to the idea that pessimism may not be totally based on negativity; at least it expresses a belief that things could be better. Although successful people do tend to be optimistic, people also change the world because they’re unsatisfied.
V. Types of Optimism
Philosophical optimism: This phrase refers specifically to an argument of Leibniz from around the end of the 17th century, when he logically ‘proved’ that if God exists, this must be the best of all possible worlds. Because if God is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omnibenevolent (all-good), then either this is the best of all possible worlds, or God doesn’t exist. Or to put it another way, if this is not the best possible world, God must be unable or unwilling to make it better. Which would contradict the definition of (the Christian) God.
Leibniz was unable to say how this world is the best of all possible worlds, contrary to appearances. Of course, many people take this line of thinking to suggest that God does not exist. But the idea that God’s plan is beyond human understanding goes with the faith, so this is not necessarily a strike against Leibniz’ argument. We obviously do not know enough about the universe to determine whether it’s best or not!
Dispositional optimism: This is the primary psychological theory of optimism, which can be contrasted with “explanatory style” below. Dispositional optimism is a character trait—the tendency to expect things to go well. It is believed to be influenced by both nature and nurture, and some think it can be learned through practice. As mentioned earlier, research shows that people with this character trait tend to be happier, healthier, and more successful than pessimists.
Explanatory Style: This theory suggests that optimism is actually a matter of how people explain events, not a belief about the future. It says that optimists are people who, when good things happen, explain that as a stable, universal, intrinsic characteristic of the world, while pessimistic people explain negative events in the same way. Some psychologists believe that “explanatory style” is what the rest of us call “optimism”; however, others claim that explanatory style is distinct from dispositional optimism—that the relationship between the two needs to be further studied.
VI. Optimism versus Pessimism
If you’re sure that optimism is the most positive attitude, consider . . . who should be most disappointed when things don’t work out for the best—the optimist or the pessimist? Who should have a more difficult time accepting reality when it hurts? One argument against optimism is that it makes reality look bad. Optimists, by definition, expect things to be great; this means that they will certainly be disappointed and disillusioned unless they are shielded from reality or lie to themselves constantly. Doesn’t it make more sense to psychologically prepare for the worst and be favorably surprised when things go well?
However, according to research, optimists do, in fact, respond better to disappointment than pessimists, with more resilience, and less stress. This is because, even when things go wrong, optimists expect them to get better, whereas pessimists take it as confirmation that things always go badly.
VII. Optimism in Pop Culture
As Bill Nye explains in this short clip, science-fiction has become overwhelmingly negative about the future, concentrating on apocalypse (the end of the world) and dystopia (societies gone horribly wrong). But not Star Trek. In Star Trek, the future Earth and its Federation of planets are united in a utopian peace where, it appears, most social and environmental problems have been solved. Starfleet itself, a military organization, is “a peace-keeping armada” dedicated largely to peaceful exploration and research.
Peter Quill of Guardians of the Galaxy:
In this scene from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, the ever-optimistic hero Peter Quill demonstrates how foolish optimism can lead to success (at least in movies). Note the lyrics of the song he sings. We shall not spoil the scene for new viewers by describing the outcome.