The Apocalyptic Optimist: Or, don’t tell me to turn my frown upside down

“What people forget is a journey to nowhere starts with a single step, too.” – Chuck Palahniuk


For years we heard how awesome optimists were, how they lived longer, ate better, had better sex, and were generally blessed with sunshine and rainbows. It looked for a long time that optimism was a force multiplier. I wondered though, optimism always seemed like a big confirmation bias shell game and an invitation to be fooled by one’s own tendency towards the Dunning-Kruger effect.

About three years ago, the tide changed. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright Sided came out, the economic collapse seemed to call out irrational exuberance, studies on self-conception and depression , and I was smug for a bit.

Now at risk for my own tendency for confirmation bias, the are dangers to both being irrationally optimistic and rationally optimistic. An article for Psychology Today goes into this:

Most Americans are familiar with Norman Vincent Peale and his writings on “the power of positive thinking,” and more recently “The Secret” which posits “the law of attraction.” Basically, this sounds like excellent advice. And indeed, Dr. Martin Seligman, a top-notch research psychologist and a former President of the American Psychological Association, has shown that “optimism” is a key element in emotional well-being.

But there is a big difference between healthy optimism and the Pollyanna pop psychology version of positive thinking. Giddy positivism advises us to look on the bright side at all times. These trite pep talks often tend to backfire and cause resentment and isolation in others.

People who play the “everything-will-be-terrific” game not only overlook real problems and issues that need to be addressed, but they prevent others from expressing grief, pain, anger, loneliness, or fears. It is difficult if not impossible to air your true feelings in the presence of one of these ever-positive thinkers. They often make others feel guilty for harboring bad feelings.

The ingratitude and emotional controlling nature of this kind of optimism is understood now. To be fair and not deny pain, sometimes you have to admit that the situation is, well, shit. Sometimes you have to do that to be a good friend too.

There is no rational reason deny yourself either pleasure or pain, happiness or unhappiness in abstract.   These states of being are feedback,  and while it may be wise to avoid their causes or to avoid reveling in a feedback loop, but, as sentiments guide reason, not being very intimate with your natural disposition seems foolish to this reader.

In a social context, it means a little bit of pessimism is useful, but a hysterical hanging onto disappear seems foolish.  But even that can be a optimistic apocalypticism, and even that is a reason to get up in the morning, as Eugene Thacker says about Thomas Ligotti’s cosmic pessimism:

Above all, Conspiracy is a document of the pessimist’s dilemma: that the worthlessness of life and its philosophical realisation tends to become worthwhile (a ‘no’ becomes a ‘yes’). And in this, Conspiracy might be characterised as a form of ecstatic pessimism, a pessimism that is resolutely misanthropic and without redemption, but that also must constantly bear witness to the failure of thought that constitutes it.

Even the path to nowhere is still walking.

One thought on “The Apocalyptic Optimist: Or, don’t tell me to turn my frown upside down

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s