26 January 2017 - By Robyn Johnston, Master's student Persuasive Communication: 'Is optimism the cause of modern day misery?'
January is usually the month of penitence. A self-flagellating 4-week stretch is the only way many of us can start to feel normal again after the festive overindulgence. This year, my new year's head inhibited any form of independent thinking so I flippantly asked my mum what my resolution should be. After reeling off a much longer list than I had expected (thanks mum) one in particular stood out “stop moaning; be more positive”. As a seasoned cynic myself I’ve often looked in wonder and irritation at people that fail to see the negative consequences that I so often see. My friends nickname me ‘Colin’ which is based on the sickly victorian child in the classic British film The Secret Garden. In part for being rather sickly myself but also due to the fact I don’t recognize my own strengths and abilities (although I don’t think I’m as bad as Colin, who doesn’t realize he can walk and has spent his entire life in bed, but it’s a close call).
So this got me thinking, is this negativity just an inherent part of my personality and do I actually want to join the happy-go-lucky gang? American psychologist and philosopher William James came up with a simplistic equation: happiness = expectations over reality. So there are two ways in which we can reach fulfilment 1) change reality, or 2) change expectations. A good pessimist will know how tricky it is to change the reality of circumstances so any sane person will know they need to reduce expectations. Indeed, Alain de Botton also agrees in the wisdom in pessimism, stating that when you familiarize yourself with failure, any positives will be a success. Currently, we live in a painfully optimistic world, mainly due to corporations trying to sell us things with overbearing smiles and a warped view of happiness. In these modern times, have we lost the wisdom in viewing the glass as half empty? Ancient religions were built on pessimism; Buddhism’s ‘all life is suffering’ and Christianity’s ‘original sin’ have kept expectations in check for centuries. Is optimism the cause of modern day misery?
Whilst I agree with aspects of this thought, my gut-feeling is not to embrace it wholeheartedly. How can you be bothered to get out of bed in the morning if you expect the day to be terrible? Just from viewing people around me, the people who are constantly in a state of pessimism seem to wallow there whilst the optimists let the negative happenings in life just slide off them. Actor Bryan Cranston, in a recent article by the Guardian said “When you are not feeling happy, pretend you are, and pretty soon you will be”. Perhaps tricking yourself and others into being happy is the way forward. Although there is a very fine balance - who wants to be mates with the annoying eternal optimistic? Not me. I think a lot can be learned from Pixar’s Inside out about the complexities of balancing both happiness and sadness and the acceptance of the latter in life. What I’m taking away from my research into pessimism/optimism are elements of both. Overall, I think my mum will be happy and my friends don’t need to think of a new nickname just yet.
“Believe that life is worth living, and your very belief will help create the fact.” - William James
Robyn Johnston (26) is currently enrolled in the Master’s programme in Communication Science (track Persuasive Communication). Her expected year of graduation is 2017.