We’re told that the difference between optimists and pessimists is what side of the coin they look at in a random situation. Is the glass half full or half empty? Was this a blessing in disguise or the universe sending a message?
We’re told that optimism is about staying positive, about being grateful for what you have, and about “looking at the bright side.”
Except that no, that’s not really it.
As my friend Jess Ekstrom, author of Chasing The Bright Side and creator of The Bright Side Conference, said in a recent interview, “Optimism is not about positivity, it’s about choosing to believe in ‘better.’ And when we believe in better, that’s the first step to creating it...We have to ask ourselves, what can I do now?”
Not just believing in “better” but what can I do to make it better?
It’s an important distinction.
Because whether you consider the glass half full or empty, it’s still half a glass of water. The key is what are you going to do with that water now, or how are you going to get more?
It's not just looking at the bright side, it’s interacting with it.
What's In A Word?
Let’s parse the mindset vine that clings to our feelings and permeates our lexicon so we can make sense of words like optimism, pessimism and realism, and how we should use them.
What Jess is talking about is realistic optimism. She’s separating out positive thoughts from the action that follows.
Pretending everything is fine is not the same as knowing you’re going to be ok.
That’s the difference between delusional optimism and realistic optimism.
Ok, so where does Debbie Downer, Sourpuss and Oscar the Grouch fit in?
Pessimism is the true antipode of delusional optimism because a pessimist isn’t just saying that the glass is half empty, they’re saying the glass is half empty, it’s always been empty, it will continue being empty and it’s all their fault.
This is contra to the good-things-always-happen, I-just-know-it mumbo jumbo of the delusional optimist about to walk open-eyed off a cliff, unseen to only them.
Both delusional optimists and pessimists fail to process reality.
On one end, delusional optimists inflate their sense of safety, while pessimists perpetuate their own jinx.
And on the other, delusional optimists take no ownership in setbacks, while pessimists take no pride in success.
They’re their own self serving propaganda machines.
Realistic optimists are something different.
Their optimism doesn’t always mean happy or cheery. They suffer and despair too. It’s just that they tend to get on with it quicker than a pessimist.
A true optimist is just a realist who knows she has a say in what happens next.
[Fact], because..., and so I…
Your whole life is basically this sentence playing out over and over again:
[Fact], because..., and so I…
We decide what kind of a world we live in on the “because” part of the sentence, and we decide on who we are on the “and so I…” part of the sentence.
So How Do You Become A Realistic Optimist?
Perspective (the “because…” part).
Perspective in knowing that you aren’t the focal point of happenstance, but the source of how you respond to it.
And Resilience (the “and so I…” part).
Recently, I heard someone comment that although NYC is going through difficult times during the pandemic, it was refreshing to see that beneath everyone’s frayed veneer, there was so much resilience.
We’re often surprised by our own resilience, forgetting that resiliency is what has dragged our ancestors out of the trees, onto the savannah and into our cities. Resilience isn’t some holy elixir of the gods, it’s just another way of saying, resourceful. It's who we are as a species.
For a lot of us, resiliency was designed out of our lives and replaced with comfort and convenience. But that resiliency didn’t disappear, it’s in a “go-bag” in the garage collecting dust.
It’s not a question of whether you are resilient or not (you are), it’s what will it take for you to be accountable in the face of uncertainty, and grab your bag.
So look at the bright side and believe in yourself, because you’re an optimist, a real optimist, and you know it’s not about happiness or hope, it’s about agency.
Your move, champ.
On the topic of bright side, I'm one of the speakers at Jess's Virtual Bright Side Conference releasing on April 25. There' s a ton of great presenters and it's a "pay-what-you-want" model. Check it out here.