Everyone knows the analogy of the half-full glass. It’s commonly used to teach a lesson on optimism versus pessimism that is simple, easy to understand, and immediately apparent which is which. I might be splitting a few hairs here, but I have always disliked it, primarily because of its simplicity, but also because as far as I can see the glass is always completely full but with two things instead of one. There’s never any qualification of that in the story, though, is there? Air has weight. It has a measurable mass and exerts pressure and friction on us as we move through it. It’s a real thing, and it fills up the other half of that glass.
What is optimism? According to Merriam-Webster (my go-to because of their eagerness to acknowledge the evolution of language), it is:
- a doctrine that this world is the best possible world
- an inclination to put the most favourable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome <expressed optimism about the future of the business> <the optimism of cheerleaders>
Those are pretty good, actually. When I looked it up, I’d hoped for something more readily open to picking apart and critique, but I like those and find myself being schooled in the real definition of the word rather than the one we’re all used to, the one that glass tries to teach us, which is one I think of as unhealthy.
A reasonable definition of that type of optimism, I think, might be that it is a condition of maintained positivity always requiring some degree of conscious effort. A struggle (rather than an inclination – two different things) to always see the best in people, circumstances, and the self. An assumed state that relies heavily on basic emotions and attempts to mold them into a state of being, and in that, trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. It is not a reliable path to walk, or goal to seek, because those basic emotions at their foundation are simply not sustainable. I have an inclination to think that people are good. In fact, I say it all the time, but I know some of us do bad things and think bad thoughts, and I’d be hard-pressed to search for the good in those.
Emotions are never good or bad in and of themselves. They exist, they are within us by nature, and each of them has a purpose. Assigning them places on a scale of positive to negative is a philosophical construct, but instead of those terms, if we said they were either comfortable or uncomfortable, would they have the same weight? More semantical hairs, maybe, but not altogether unreasonable, especially if we recognise just how grey and amorphous and so very fleeting our emotions can really be. They don’t last, and they’re not meant to. The power they have is the power we give them – good or bad, positive or negative, comfortable or not.
It’s just not possible to be consistently happy. Despite what you may think, it’s not possible to be consistently angry, or sad, or fearful either. Clinical depression, for example, is a disorder and not a normal, everyday, healthy state of being, yet it is still a state of being if that is to be consistently maintained outside of normal, valid, human emotions. It is certainly not sadness or grief, and I’m sure anyone suffering from it would agree. I have post-traumatic stress disorder, which causes my fear response to often be off the charts, and can result in a complete shutdown, often for days at a time, or sustained anger of a level I’m sure has come close to stroking me out. Again, not a normal state of being.
These examples are dramatic on purpose, to show the difference between natural and unnatural states. I’m not trying to suggest that working to be always optimistic is a disorder, but I do think it’s a fool’s errand bound to fail.
Let’s split some more of those hairs, shall we? Optimism is not the same as a lack of negativity, and neither is pessimism a lack of positivity. Some months ago I made a conscious choice to avoid being negative on Facebook, something I hoped would extend organically into other parts of my life, and it has. No angel here, though, I still occasionally take the piss out of racists and bigots, but then I move on to more puppies and poetry. Notice, though, that I chose not to be something, rather than pursue being something else. There is a calm, a sense of peace that comes with that lack of sustained effort, even if we don’t realise we’re making it, and it is a state of being at once healthy and easy to simply soak in. It’s like floating in the Dead Sea instead of treading water in your backyard pool. There is a conscious effort I often have to make, using tools I’ve learned and gathered, to manage the effects of PTSD, but the inner peace I choose is also a very comfortable median to return to, one that often mitigates those effects as well.
If a state of being you either aspire to or find yourself in without choice needs effort, if it drains your psychological fuel (glass one-quarter full and going down), is it really worth the expense? I can only speak for myself, but I choose calm over optimism, and that’s not splitting hairs at all.
Remember, air is a thing.