Optimism is a propitious stance towards the universe. One that says there's value to create and appreciate. It's an underrated value in this culture and one that I've underrated in my life.
Of course, not all kinds of optimism are valuable.
Optimism should not be indiscriminately positive. Some paths should not be taken, many projects better to never start, and the world is, at times, truly dark.
Borrowing from [[Peter Thiel]], definite optimism is closer to what I'm after than indefinite optimism. Definite optimism is a positive attitude with a theory and model. It's an optimism that can explain why it's optimistic with detailed plans and pictures of the world.
In the face of doubt, optimism about the world says that we're capable of determining whether or not there are things that are worth doing now and that alone is worth it. No matter how much suffering or uncertainty, we can perceive and act in each and every moment.
The Greek philosopher Epictetus put the Stoic open-door policy as:
Has someone made smoke in the house? If it is moderate, I'll stay. If too much, I exit. For you must always remember and hold fast to this, that the door is open.
If you have some background in Stoicism, you'll know that this quote's most natural reading is dark. But the theme that I take from this is that freedom is available. I can always decide between options. When there's uncertainty, hardship, and doubt, all you need to do is think through possibilities as best as possible and then act.
There's a technique in improv called "Yes And". In a simple exercise practicing the technique, you're given a scenario or line from a partner. You then accept what they've said and say ("Yes") and then continue their scenario no matter how ridiculous ("And"). For example, they may say, "We're cowboys moving through the Amazon". You respond with "Yes, and we're looking for mythical treasure", and they follow up with "Yes, and we're struggling to move through the vines with our horses." As you can see, you don't need to be good to do this! All players need to do is accept the situation and build on it.
This pattern needn't be positive. You can "Yes And" with negativity and spiral downward. On the margin, we could use more positive "Yes Anding".
There are better ways of "Anding." More precision and direct contribution, less vague and contentless support. As in improv, it's better to follow a logical narrative and offer something useful. Definite "Yes Anding" is better than indefinite "Yes Anding". The best improvers are capable of doing excellent work even if their partner struggles.
If you see the world as propitious, you're more likely to continue to work hard to realize your goals.
Suppose you're a gatherer and picking up berries. Here's are two strategies for berry bushes:
- Pick up every single berry from the bush.
- Pick up berries from the bush until it becomes difficult, then give up and find another bush.
Suppose you're aiming to maximize the number of berries picked. In that case, the first strategy will perform better when there are enough bushes to pick from. Instead of spending time crawling under bushes to get every last berry, you'll simply move on. The formalized version of this is the marginal value theorem. Basically, you're determining whether continuing to forage in a berry bush is worth additional effort. If it's not, move on.
Sometimes our problems shouldn't receive additional effort. We should move on. Low mood and lack of motivation are useful in the right contexts.
Optimism is consistent with this point. But it pushes back on more pessimistic views of the world. Even when there isn't low hanging fruit, there is fruit that we can pick. It's the kind of attitude that succeeds over the long term. If you have many at-bats, the probability of hitting a home run is higher.
Curiosity is an instance of optimism as propitiousness. The curious have faith that they can figure it out and that the world is worth being figured out. In part, it is justified by the optimistic attitude that there's value to uncover from a further investigation. Which is to say that it's fundamentally optimistic.
The most optimistic have bounds of energy and stamina. Many people at the top of their profession are exceptionally energetic. Some are driven by optimism, other's anxiety. It's better to be driven by optimism than by anxiety.
Interacting with people is better when you believe that there is something worth knowing about each person. If you imagine being on the hunt for what that is, many conversations will become better.
If you find the "Yes And" metaphor useful, think of this is an application. Discover what's great about each person, appreciate, and build on it.
Completely trust your friends. In "On True and False Friendship", Seneca said that "Regard him as loyal, and you will make him loyal." This is likely true, if risky. Viktor Frankl has a similar line: "if we treat people as if they were what they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming."
Optimism grounds faith. Faith is sometimes taken to be a merely religious concept, but this needn't be true. One can have faith in yourself and others. Faith is not limited to the Gods.
Many morally admirable people had faith that humans possess a good nature. They believed that it was possible to reach every person and turn them towards the light. In Eulogy for the Martyed Children, MLK said: "Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality."
There is no doubt that this can be exceptionally difficult. Difficult to preach, let alone practice.
Faith in humanity expresses the idea that humanity is worth fighting for. Humans are worthy of respect, and the fight is not hopeless.