I just had an experience I was nervous about, and it turned out fine. This happens a lot. It was like a textbook example of anticipatory anxiety that ends up being overblown and, in retrospect, seemed totally unnecessary. Or, as Seneca said (it never hurts to quote a big-name Stoic), “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
That got me thinking about optimism and pessimism. I recently read a book called “Toxic Positivity,” and I can see where too much positive thinking can be harmful, especially when it’s used to try to suppress awareness of reality or to shut another person down.
But I’m also a big believer in learned optimism (there’s a book for that too). Expectations can influence reality. It’s not as simple as the peppy saying would have it:“If you think you can, you can, and if you think you can’t, you can’t.” It’s more like: If you think you can, you’re more likely to see opportunities because you are looking for them, and if you think you can’t, you’re more likely not to notice things that would have been good for you or that you would have enjoyed.
And I think there is a way to reconcile the idea that deliberate optimism — positive thinking — can open up your life, while recognizing that, used in the wrong way, positivity can be harmful.
It’s like this. Here we are, in the present moment. The future lies ahead. It is unformed, but (and here’s the pessimistic part) entire sections of the future are already closed off to us, because of circumstances, because of our past actions, and because of all the many things over which we have no control.
At the same time, the future holds unlimited possibilities.
How can both of those things be true? Within the areas that remain possible for us, the number of choices we have is infinite. I will never be an Olympic athlete (no matter how clearly and energetically I try to visualize myself winning a medal!). It’s just not going to happen. But if I decide to become more fit than I am now, there are an infinite number of ways I can go about making that happen.
Every time something occurs that goes better than I had feared, it’s a reminder (if I pay attention) that those of us who have a certain kind of brain (which may be everyone, at least sometimes) often expect the future to be more limited than it is.
That doesn’t mean flipping over to the other side, and thinking everything will be always happen just the way we want it to la la la la la. It’s just a nudge to remember that unless we are fortune tellers (spoiler: we’re not), in many circumstances, we don’t know what’s going to happen next. We can leave room in our minds for a broader range of possibilities.