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Flexible optimism

Research has shown that being optimistic is beneficial and can be fun, but also that there are limitations in it's power.

There can be little doubt about it: optimism is good for us. It is also more fun.

Seligman 2002

But he goes on to point out that optimism on its own it is not enough to remedy depression, failure and ill-health. He argues that the limitations of optimism include:

  • It can prevent us from seeing reality with clarity
  • It can help some people evade responsibility for their own failures
  • It may work better in some cultures than in others

These limitations do not nullify the advantages of optimism, but they help to put it in perspective. By using 'disputation' pessimists can make themselves feel more optimistic. This involves arguing against your negative thoughts about yourself. 

Here's a typical pessimistic outlook when something goes wrong: 'I missed that deadline and let everyone down. I'm useless at this job and will never get promotion.'

But is it really as bad as all that? Seligman advises that we go on the attack against our instinct to catastrophise:

'Well, that was the first deadline I've missed in years - and looking after the kids while my partner was ill meant that I couldn't put in as much time as I needed. None of my colleagues were even aware of it until I mentioned it. Anyway, it was quite a small matter and the boss only commented on it once. She then went on to congratulate me on my ideas for achieving our expansion goals. I've enjoyed steady promotion, so there's no reason why I won't stand a reasonable chance next time.''
Used regularly, disputation turns people from dejection at every setback into optimists. It is a very useful technique and one worth encouraging in pessimistic colleagues, children, patients, clients etc. 

But as the inventor of disputation, Seligman points out one important caveat 'there are times when the consequences of things going wrong are so big that it is worth considering pessimistic outcomes and then choosing the cautious route.'

He calls this 'flexible optimism' and points out the advantages of using pessimism to achieve clarity when really big decisions have to be made about things that could negatively affect your career, your family, your ownership of your home etc.

Optimism carries great benefits, but it is not an unlimited blessing. Pessimism can help individuals and societies to achieve perspective on vital issues. In an unpredictable and  dangerous world pessimism offers us a sharp dose of reality when considering potential negative outcomes of our action.

You'd prefer to drive without wearing your seatbelt? The odds are that you'll get away with it, the police are usually too busy to tackle trivial offences. But what if someone hits you head-on? 

Tempted to have an affair? Convinced that your spouse or partner is very unlikely to find out? But what if they do? 

Tempted to buy that big house you can't afford? After all, your salary might go up and you'll be able to meet the payments. But what if it doesn't? 

The bigger the consequences if things go wrong, the more you should apply the reality-check of flexible pessimism. 

'What we want is not blind optimism but flexible optimism - optimism with its eyes open. We must be able to use pessimism's keen sense of reality when we need it, but without having to dwell in its dark shadows. The benefits of this kind of optimism are, I believe, without limit,' says Seligman. 

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