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Posts Tagged ‘optimism’

In the last couple of generations, modern industrial culture has seriously reduced the range of acceptable emotions. Certain emotions are not only unpleasant, the conventional wisdom goes, but should be avoided at all costs. However, the older I grow, the more I become convinced that this attitude is not only wrong, but actively harmful.

One of the most obvious examples of this attitude is the insistence on extroversion. Today, the model of the well-adjusted person has become an outgoing optimist who lives and works in groups, and feels uncomfortable alone. Not only are projects in schools and businesses increasingly done in teams, but even yoga and meditation, originally intended for private reflection, is done primarily in groups. By contrast, anyone with a preference for occasional privacy is seen as maladjusted at best, and at worst a potential perpetrator of another campus shooting.

This either-or distinction is a distortion of Carl Jung’s original concept, which described two poles of behavior, and was never intended to label people. Nor did Jung intend to condemn either extreme. Equating introversion with maladjustment is as accurate as it would be to condemn extroverts for being irresponsible and unable to focus; both extremes might include such behaviors, but actually cover a far broader ranger of behavior.

More importantly, as Anthony Storr points out in Solitude, many forms of creativity and original thought seem to require extended periods of introverted behavior. For that matter, the most successful forms of collaboration tend to be like the one used in free software, in which people work alone in the initial stages of their works, then collaborate for peer review and tweaking. By devaluing introversion, we are probably also undermining creativity – which may explain why movies with three or more names on the script rarely produce anything memorable.

Similarly, certain states of mind, such as depression and anger, are seen not only to be unpleasant, but to be avoided and medicated as quickly as possible. More – any decisions or conclusions reached in these undesirable states are questioned, or excused as being the indication of an unsound mind.

In some cases, that might be so. But always? Probably not. Depression and anger are natural reactions to events like the death of someone close, or being treated unfairly.. While dwelling endlessly on such things is unhealthy, accepting them for a certain amount of time is probably necessary for coming to terms with them. Denying this need, or trying to shorten the time in which such emotions are indulged may be as mentally unhealthy as removing a cast before a bone has had time to knit back together is unhealthy physically.

As for these emotions offering a skewed version of reality, why do we assume that the optimism that we believe is typical of a well-adjusted person is any more accurate of a perception? Personally, I have seen more projects – and companies – spiral downward because of decisions made by an optimist who was unable to admit when something was going wrong. A depressed person might at least anticipate problems so they could be countered, or admit problems when actually faced with them. In the same way, an angry person might drive themselves harder for success. Instead of accepting only one attitude as realistic, I suspect that we need to accept a much wider range of emotions as sometimes offering useful perceptions.

Yet another example is the nervousness and anxiety typical of someone who moves into a new job or set of responsibilities. When you stop to think (and even when you don’t), there are valid reasons for feeling uneasy. There are many things you can’t know about your new position, and you want to prove yourself to colleagues and ultimately become a success.

Many athletes and performers recognize such feelings – actors call them “flop sweat.” But rather than pretending that these feelings don’t exist, they worry when that not having such feelings will lead to a flat and uninspired performance. The trick, they will tell you, is to control these feelings, to channel them into the performance. If you can do that, you will have the extra edge that leads to outstanding performance.

However, we don’t admit that flop sweat is natural, let alone teach people how to cope with it. Instead, we give it a name like Impostor Syndrome, elevating it to a psychiatric condition – which except in a small minority of cases, it usually is not – giving the sufferers one more thing to worry about and elevating the feelings into some vast, impersonal force. Instead of teaching them how to reduce the anxiety by practice or planning, we encourage the sufferers to give themselves affirmations, or seek the approval of others. We encourage them to look for placebos rather than solutions that are known to work, and, as we do so, we are probably both preventing the development of competence and encouraging mediocrity.

I am not the sort of Puritan who believes that suffering is necessary for success, or needs to be sought out. But I do believe that it must be confronted directly, not avoided. Too often, in our panic to avoid the least unpleasantness, we limit ourselves and short-circuit the processes that are necessary for accomplishment and competence. We mean well, but in enforcing extroversion and pleasantness, we may also be suppressing necessary and useful emotions.

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In print, I can rant with the best of them. In person, though, I am usually a broadly tolerant fellow to the point of mildness. My friends range from a Catholic cleric through various ministers to agnostics, and from neo-conservatives to anarchists and Marxist Leninists. My taste in books, music, movies, food, and art covers almost every genre you have heard about (and probably a few that you haven’t). When someone expresses an enthusiasm for the mediocre, I am polite and, if cornered into giving an opinion, I am diplomatic in my expression.

But there is one thing that leaves me feeling like my teeth have slid off tin-foil: the airhead optimism and superficiality of those who believe that all that anyone needs to achieve their goals is to think positively – the attitude, in short, that is peddled by pop-psychologists, psychics, and life coaches, borrowed from people like Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale, and promulgated in bits of New Age philosophy such as The Secret.

Why does this feel-good optimism annoy me so much? At first, you might expect it wouldn’t, because I’m a biological optimist, so wired to be upbeat that even trauma can’t keep me down for long. It probably doesn’t hurt, either, that daily heavy exercise keeps me pumped up with adrenalin and endorphins.

However, it is a sign of just how deeply such things irritate me that they can make me react so much against my natural inclinations.

I suppose that part of what irritates me is the methodology, which often seems to revolve around slogans and aphorisms intended to inspire you and reinforce the right attitudes. Being practical, I prefer to receive useful information rather than inspiration, and, as a lifelong student of Orwell, I am immediately suspicious at what looks like the techniques of mind-control – even if it is mind-control done with consent, or even self-inflicted.

But what irritates me most about the slogans is that, when they are based on quotes, they are frequently used out of context or inappropriately.

For instance, when Einstein said that God doesn’t play dice with the universe, he was not expressing a belief in a personal deity who influenced events, but a conviction that there was some principle beyond indeterminacy in subatomic theory – and, so far as we know today, he was wrong.

Similarly, when someone notes that Noah’s ark was built by an amateur and The Titanic by professionals, I can’t help thinking that as a carpenter Noah was a professional, too, and that The Titanic was sunk due to bad luck, not negligence on the part of the builders. I won’t even go into the fact that being mythical limits Noah’s usefulness as role model. But the point is that if you are going to quote or allude when an English major like me is around, you better do so appropriately.

Another reason I dislike this cant is that it is annoyingly over-simple. Yes, having a positive attitude can sometimes help you – but not always. Being cheerful and upbeat is not going to save you from your internal organs failing one day. If you get mugged, you are not going to hurt any less because you are optimistic.

It always seems to me that the positive speakers have either never had any serious trauma in their lives, or else have repressed the memory of any events that were painful or beyond their control. Furthermore, such an attitude is only possible if you are a middle-class member of a modern industrial society who has led a relatively uneventful life. It is the attitude of prolonged adolescence, not of experience, and requires more denial than I can muster or ever hope to maintain. Often, it seems dangerously close to solipsism. At best, it preaches a demonstrably false view of the world that can only leave believers less able to cope.

But the strongest reason why I despise this empty optimism is the hypocrisy behind it. Those who preach it cannot possibly feel it all the time, and there must be occasions when they long for a good mope. But melancholy or depression does not fit with the public image that they have worked so hard to establish, so they must falsify their feeling at least part of the time. Nor, having invested so much in their brand of optimism, can they honestly discuss it. Faced with such doubts, they can only be even more enthusiastically upbeat than before.

The result is that I can rarely relax among the positive thinkers, because it is impossible to be sure when they are genuine or when they are not. When they agree with me, do I really have a meeting of minds, or are they just being positive? I can never be sure.

Too often, everything they do seems exaggerated and false. Their smiles are too broad and last a little too long, and their enthusiasm always seems greater than the situation would justify. If they have any genuine reaction, it is well-hidden.

The uncertainty is greatest when I try to decide whether I have made a genuine connection or not. When they proclaim that they love everyone five minutes after meeting them, and applaude every suggestion as “fabulous,” what vocabulary is left for true enthusiasm? In one case, I thought for years that one of these airhead optimists thought of me as a special friend, only to find that they were simply being insincere.

Long ago, I learned that the people you can actually trust for help are not necessarily those with the strongest protests of friendship and understanding. In fact, one or two of the most supportive people I have known would be dismissed as uncaring and shallow rednecks if you judged them by their casual conversation. By contrast, I have known several positive thinkers whose actions never matched their words in a crisis.

With all this against the positive thinkers, no wonder that I sometimes feel like Don Marquis’ archy, the poet turned cockroach faced with the cheerful cricket – I want to tell them to groan just once before I throw a brick.

Of course, I never do, but the impulse is there. Usually, I simply leave them to their fantasy and walk away as quickly as possible, shaking my head, not at the power of positive thinking, but at the power of self-delusion.

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