Saturday, August 10, 2013

Why are Optimists so Negative about Pessimists?

Why are optimists so negative about pessimists?

Pessimists have much to offer society. I would not go as far to write that pessimism is the best policy, but I would not take the other extreme and support my superintendent’s pitch that “Optimism Is the Best Policy.”

True to the optimist approach, my super outlined in a recent blog posting the many positive benefits of optimism, like “...that optimists are: healthier, less likely to give up, more successful in school, on the job, and on the playing field, more successful in relationships, depressed less often, and for shorter periods of time.” Furthermore, she affirms “optimists help create some of the good they come to expect, so they are probably right more than not – and they don’t waste time worrying about what they’re not right about.”

Who would criticize such an optimistic view of optimism? Optimists won’t. The dirty, but noble work of critical thinking is left to the pessimists.

Pessimists bring much to the table to be valued--including a healthy skepticism about conventional wisdom. In my field of study, I was trained to look at the past and present critically. I teach this same skill to my history students. In the historical field, it is understood that, quite often and more so as time passes, cognitive dissonance kicks in and distorts reality.

Historians are critical thinkers by design and most often in search of the truth. As James Loewen exposed in his important examination of United States history textbooks, the past is often misrepresented in an overly optimistic way to promote patriotism and avoid the conflict and drama of our country’s history. I worry those promoting optimism might negatively view thinking of this type as unhealthy pessimism.  Of course, this is a pessimistic view.

Disconcerting to optimists might be the latest psychology research showing "...that optimists may look at life through rose-colored glasses and ignore the truth about the health risks associated with aging, while the pessimists have a more realistic view of the threats ahead and thus may be more proactive about taking care of themselves."

Labeling me, or anyone, a pessimist is much more complicated than conventional wisdom presumes. I suspect most people jump between being fair-weather optimists and unfair-weather pessimists. In my own life, I have felt far more optimistic about life's challenges when I have felt empowered in determining outcomes related to those challenges. In contrast, I tend to be more pessimistic about things when I have little control over the conditions dictating my life.

Truth be written, pessimism is not usually the producer of negative situations, but more often the product of negative conditions.

For instance, just two and half years ago I was very optimistic about my professional future. I had just completed my master’s degree, my district had agree to a stable teacher’s contract, my school gave me the green light to create and teach my dream course on historical research, the high school where I teach had recently completed a major remodel, my children and students were being taught in smaller classes, and (for the most part) teachers in my community and state were left to teach.

Then Governor Walker dropped the bomb and successfully divided Wisconsin. Since, much of Wisconsin is understandably mired in a pool of pessimism. Over the past couple years, my own school district and I have suffered through premature staff retirements, unprecedented resignations and departure of friends and colleagues, larger class sizes, divisive politics, program and staff cuts, teacher pay and benefits cuts, increased workloads, the accountability craze, partisan attacks on unions, and anti-public education propaganda. These happenings have produced my and others’ pessimism. Treating this stress with optimism is like using a Band-Aid for serious hemorrhaging. Listening and acting on teachers angst is a healthy antidote for the trauma inflicted on our profession and public education. Just writing this, makes me feel better.
For optimists, pessimism perpetuates problems. For pessimists, negativity can be powerful fuel. In my aforementioned era of professional bliss, I was largely oblivious and uninvolved in larger professional concerns. My local optimism blinded me to the national attacks on public education already underway and headed Wisconsin’s way. In the pessimistic state that followed, I was enlightened. I am now more fully aware of the nationally-orchestrated attacks on public education. The negative lens further widened my understanding of inequity and poverty in our school systems. Most importantly, my awakening pushed me into an activist role and introduced me to some great critical thinkers around the state and the country.

This posting is not a promotion of pessimism. I actually concur with others that too much pessimism is unhealthy. While I still wrestle with mild depression, I have personally banked some of my negative passion for the long haul that will be required to undo the damage done to public education in Wisconsin over the past couple years.

Far more dangerous than pessimism, however, is absolutism (belief in absolute principles in political, philosophical, ethical, or theological matters). Absolutism in an optimistic manner can lead to unrealistic views of the past and present. Absolute optimism can also lead to impractical goals for the future. In addition, absolutism can lead to insensitivity toward divergent views, a condescending attitude toward critical thinkers, and an unfair dismissiveness of others' environmental conditions.

In my own district and others, no excuses policies, sacrosanct standards of professional behaviors, and non-negotiable employee handbooks move our school communities dangerously toward absolutism. 

Promoting and accepting divergent views is healthier. A monoculture of optimism is bad policy. Balancing pessimism and optimism is best policy.  

For a less pessimistic and more balanced look at optimism, check out this Time Magazine psychology article.

1 comment:

  1. The belief that success hinges upon thinking happy thoughts is depressingly naïve. Perhaps, this is an extreme characterization of optimist. Nevertheless, casinos are full of optimists.

    Your last line of the blog says it all -strive for the healthy balance between optimism and pessimism.