Optimism of the Will: A case for pragmatic positivity

I like to think of myself as an optimist. There have certainly been times when I have been too optimistic. When this pandemic first began I had the same idea as many other people had that this would all be over by September, born out of hope that the situation would be short lived and never having encountered any situation of this kind before. For that reason, I’m very conscious of not wanting to talk down to my more pessimistically inclined readers. For instance, I could make the case that in terms of wealth and opportunities the world is a significantly better place now than it was 200 years ago, and while its true that several measurements of quality of life have risen over that period, we should not kid ourselves into believing thats universal. I could make the argument that optimistic people tend to live longer overall, but if your worldview is based on the fact that the future will most likely be worse, your probably not that fussed.

To my mind, optimism made rational dosen’t mean being deluded that everything will magically get better, but seeing the misery and desperation in bad situations as well as the potential and opportunities for things to get better. An example of this might be mutual aid; the setting up of support networks for individuals who are isolated as a result of the pandemic, in order to provide resources or simply serve as a means of combatting loneliness, presents a new way of thinking about those problems in general.

This is an idea popularized by Antonio Gramsci, who had every right to be miserable as he was imprisoned by Mussolini’s fascist regime in 1926 until shortly before his death in 1937. In his prison writings he noted his idea of ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’:

“You must realize that I am far from feeling beaten. It seems to me that a man out to be deeply convinced that the source of his own moral force is in himself — his very energy and will, the iron coherence of ends and means — that he never falls into those vulgar, banal moods, pessimism and optimism. My own state of mind synthesizes these two feelings and transcends them: my mind is pessimistic, but my will is optimistic. Whatever the situation, I imagine the worst that could happen in order to summon up all my reserves and will power to overcome every obstacle”

Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

To put it another way, situations may seem dire and indeed there’s a strong chance that they are dire, but the optimistic side to that is that they can be changed through human willingness to make them better. Look at the field of autism and neurodiversity. In 50 years we’ve gone from blaming autism on ‘refrigerator mothers’, to autistic people being accepted members of society. Although, the term need not be meant in the political sense in which Gramsci intended. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has focussed closely on the potential of collective action – the acknowledgement that we are living in desperate times, and the idea that we can suppress the virus, through the simple act of not leaving the house. You get the idea. This blog post will use this idea to make the case for a rational optimism, looking at how we can stay positive faced with the challenges of 2021 and beyond.

Uncertainty is a source of optimism and pessimism…

From an autistic perspective, 2020 was a year of unprecedented challenges for everyone, not least the disability community. Mental and physical challenges wrought from the pandemic, have dominated our lives for the past nine months. Looking more narrowly for a second, part of my autism has been having a constant awareness of these societal problems: climate change, racism, political manipulation. While these might be issues everyone worries about they serve as a constant thrum in my mind, and there have been moments when feeling that not everyone is motivated by those issues in the same way I am, has caused me to be pessimistic.

An important factor in all of this is uncertainty. The states of optimism and pessimism are based on contrasting positions about the future. Being an optimist, you have a strong sense of hope but risk disappointment. Being a pessimist, you are riddled with anxiety but may feel elated when the worst is avoided. So which is better? The magical world hypotheses posits that autistic people have impaired predictive ability. We can absorb lots of information but we can’t so instinctually use things like the behaviour of people around us to predict what might happen in the immediate future. This might serve as one source of anxiety, but also as a source of hope for those unencumbered by worries.

You should not ignore positive emotions…

Two economists, David de Meza and Chris Dawson, set out to solve the riddle of state of mind and uncertainty. They examined the responses of 1,601 individuals to two questions that they repeatedly answered every year between 1991 and 2009: “How do you think you will be financially a year from now?”. A year later they would ask them “Would you say that you are better off, worse off or the same financially than you were a year ago?”. They then looked at the well-being of these individuals to determine if the optimists or pessimists were happier or more miserable based on whether or not they achieved their aims.

Some of the conclusions from this study provide a clue as to how we might predict the future and answer questions like how will the pandemic end? There’s an important caveat I have to add to this analysis that your finances are obviously more under your control than a pandemic, but as a hypothetical look at optimism and pessimism, the concept works. First, those who accurately predicted how they would be doing a year later were happiest: okay so that’s a point scored for realism. Most of us aren’t very good at predicting and rely on our natural inclinations. However, the study also found that pessimistic people experienced 38% more distress than people who could predict, while optimists felt 12% percent more distress.  In those terms, those who live in a state of negativity experience over three times more distress—even when they are pleasantly surprised that it’s not as bad as they thought—than those who are optimistic.  Negativity can bread negativity, resulting in situations where pessimistic people can’t see past the worst possible outcome.

Negative experiences are still incredibly important…

None of this is to ignore the importance of negative emotions, as they are important for mental health. I quite often put myself in situations where I allow myself to become sad or adopt a negative frame of mind, in order to regulate myself emotionally. In therapeutic settings, the therapist will quote often encourage an outpouring of emotions, and are often encountered with situations in which the patient feels like they have to apologise for being negative. This applies on an individual and societal level:

“Positive thoughts and emotions can, of course, benefit mental health. Hedonic theories define well-being as the presence of positive emotion, the relative absence of negative emotion and a sense of life satisfaction. Taken to an extreme, however, that definition is not congruent with the messiness of real life. In addition, people’s outlook can become so rosy that they ignore dangers or become complacent”

Can Positive Thinking Be Negative?, by Scott O. Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowit

Unpleasant feelings are just as crucial as positive ones in helping you make sense of life. I know as an autistic person who is very emotionally motivated and experiences thier emotions strongly, that sadness and anxiety have been incredibly useful in helping me understand myself.

Adler Hershfield, a professor of marketing psychology, investigated the link between mixed emotional experience and psychological welfare in a group of people. Before each session, participants completed a questionnaire that assessed their psychological well-being. They also wrote narratives describing their life events, which were coded for emotional content. Alder reported numerous cases of participants feeling happy and dejected at the same time. One participant noted “I feel sad at times because of everything I’ve been through, but I’m also happy and hopeful because I’m working through my issues” . This shows a process where acknowledgement of negative emotions provided a blueprint for working through them. Understanding your sadness or comprehending a negative situation and turning that into an opportunity for change in one’s own life or on a wider scale can be ultimately positive.

An Atypical Perspective

How would we go about squaring this deeply contradictory analysis within an understanding of optimism and pessimism as a whole? The answer has to be that neither pessimism nor optimism provide a clue to happiness or making the world a better place. The first thing to remember is to be honest with ourselves about how the world is and how we feel; suppressing negative emotions is an incredibly detrimental process to ones mental health, as is ignoring the problems of society to society as a whole.

As a solution, I like to employ a pragmatic optimism, that is the crux of pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. That things will only get better if we acknowledge the negative, and allow that to propel us into actively changing our world, and that which surrounds us. As Noam Chomsky summarises “Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so”.

As an autisitc person, I’ve had to experience all of these emotions: happiness, uncertainty, sadness, in very pronounced way’s. I label the forward thinking approach I’ve described ‘pragmatic optimism’ as it does involve despair, anxiety and worry. Understandably, many do not want to face up to harsh realties, just as others would prefer to ignore the possibility of change. However, the intentions and opportunities of this way of broaching the divide are ultimately positive.

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