by Dr. Norris Frederick
As you think about the coming year, or your life in general, are you an optimist or a pessimist? Is it better to be one rather than the other? Or is this either/or division a false one for you; would you use another related term to describe yourself?
To begin thinking about the matters and their relevance for life, let’s begin with a historical case in the early 1800’s where attitude is crucial. Then we will turn to what some psychologists and philosophers have to offer us on the subject.
What a Winter
What a hard winter it’s been.
In the winter of 1804-05, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their expedition of some thirty men live for four months in a small fort, which consists simply of long wooden stakes facing the river and two rows of huts. They build the fort across the Missouri river from a Mandan Indian village, freezing through temperatures that go as low as 50 degrees below zero. It’s so cold that when the men go outside to pee, they have to be quick to avoid frostbite.
The men have been traveling by boat and by foot since August 31 of 1803, struggling down the too-low waters of the Ohio River, then up against the current of the Missouri River, wintering in 1803-04 near St. Louis, then struggling again against the current through what is now South Dakota and North Dakota. The primary goal assigned Lewis by President Jefferson is to see if there is a water route that will connect the Missouri to the Pacific Ocean. The hardy band has been attacked by Sioux, become friends with the Mandans, suffered with scurvy, broken bones, and seen the death of one crew member.
In April, after the ice on the Missouri River melts, they break winter camp and head their boats west, further west than any white men have been, accompanied by the trader Charbonneau and more importantly his 15-year-old Shoshone Indian wife, Sacagawea, and her infant son. Sacagawea will be able to translate the language of the Hidatsa and the Shoshones. On May 26, 1805, Lewis climbs the high bluffs on the sides of the river, and for the first time he sees in the distance the Rocky Mountains, with the sun shining on snow-covered peaks. He is elated. As he writes in his journal, “While I viewed these mountains I felt a secret pleasure…,” as he thinks of nearing the headwaters of the Missouri River.
He realizes he has cause to worry: “When I reflected on the difficulties which this snowy barrier would most probably throw in my way to the Pacific, and the sufferings and hardships of myself and party in them, it in some measure counterbalanced the joy I had felt in the first moments I gazed on them.”
But then, with what Stephen Ambrose calls Lewis’ “characteristic resolution and optimism,” Lewis writes, “As I have always held it a crime to anticipate evils I will believe it a good comfortable road until I am compelled to believe differently.”
What Difference Does It Make?
Back to our beginning questions? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Or somewhat more one than the other? Is it in general better to be one rather than the other? Or would you use some other word to describe your attitude on the matters “optimist” and “pessimist” address?
First, as Socrates teaches us, it’s important to think about what these words mean. “Optimism” comes from the Latin optimum, which means “the best.” A pretty good general definition of optimism is that it is “the tendency to be hopeful and to emphasize or think of the good [or best] part in a situation rather than the bad [or worst] part, or the feeling that in the future good things are more likely to happen than bad things.” So optimism is both about the present – how we feel about and regard the present and its circumstances – and also the way we feel and think about the future and its prospects.
“Pessimism” comes from the Latin pessimus, meaning – you guessed it – “the worst.” One definition of the word vividly captures this “worst”: Pessimism is “the doctrine that reality is essentially evil, [or] the doctrine that evil overbalances happiness in life.”
Pessimism can be characterized as “an inclination to emphasize adverse [bad or the worst] aspects, conditions, and possibilities or to expect the worst possible outcome.” Like optimism, pessimism is how we feel about and think about the present and the future.
But both optimistic and pessimistic tendencies are also about how we will act in the present and future. Our feelings affect our actions and our thoughts, and our thoughts affect our feelings and our actions. Repeated actions are habits that affect and reflect both feelings and our beliefs.
Recalling our description of Meriwether Lewis, we can see a balance between his concern about the “sufferings and hardship ahead,” and his belief that it will be “a good comfortable road” until proven otherwise, that forms what we might call a realistic optimism, which serves him and the expedition well. An unrealistic optimism foresees no hardships and does not prepare us, and therefore we are thrown off balance at the time balance is most needed. That’s as true now as much as it was in 1803 – 1806 for Lewis and Clark and their expedition.
From the time that Lewis first saw the Rockies it will be another six months before they reach the Pacific Ocean, and they will endure many physical hardships and disappointments. They will learn there is no water route that comes close to connecting to the Missouri, thus disappointing the main hope of President Jefferson and the expedition. They will travel in freezing conditions for two weeks over the Bitterroot Mountains, led by an elderly Shoshone guide whom they can only hope knows the way. They will be forced to kill and eat horses and dogs. But led by Lewis and Clark and their positive attitudes and the trust built between them and their crew, they will succeed in reaching the Pacific, and in one more year return to their homes in the East. Theirs was one of the most remarkable feats of exploration ever accomplished.
Strong traits are essential for a good life. There are many such traits that are important, and among those is optimism. Optimism, closely associated with hopefulness, energizes us and keeps us seeing the good both in the present and in the future. As Martin Seligman writes, “Optimistic people tend to interpret their troubles as transient, controllable, and specific to one situation. Pessimistic people, in contrast, believe that their troubles last forever, undermine everything they do, and are uncontrollable.”
Seligman writes that there have been “thousands of empirical studies” which demonstrate that “Optimism and hope cause better resistance to depression when bad events strike, better performance at…challenging jobs, and better physical health.”
A century earlier the philosopher and psychologist William James pointed out that there are two types of optimists (who he called the “healthy-minded”). The first type are those who are naturally optimists, whose spirit is of a “sky-blue tint,” who connect immediately with nature and beauty and “all enchanting innocence [rather] than with dark human passions, who can think no ill of man or God.” The second type, “Systematic healthy-mindfulness, conceiving good as the essential and universal aspect of being, deliberately excludes evil from its field of vision.”
Objections to Optimism
There are two objections to optimism. James states the first: It seems “perverse” to ignore the reality of suffering and evil in the world. This argument favors the pessimist, who at least can assert to be facing reality. In response, however, realistic optimism acknowledges that the reality of some suffering and evil is to be expected, but emphasizes the value of “reframing” the present and the future and approaching them looking for the good.
A second objection is based on contemporary neuroscience and psychology. Studies show that from “50 percent to 80 percent of all the variance among people in their average levels of happiness” can be explained genetically. There is a “cortical lottery” that we all participate in without having bought a ticket! As Jonathan Haidt writes, studies show that “People showing more of a certain kind of brainwave coming through the left side of the forehead reporting feeling more happiness in their daily lives and less fear, anxiety and shame than people exhibiting higher activity on the right side. [Research also shows that] these cortical ‘lefties’ are less subject to depression and recover more quickly from negative experiences.”
This objection may lead us to conclude that we are therefore “determined” to be either optimists or pessimists. However, the evidence shows “influence,” not “determinism.” We can indeed become more optimistic, as argued by Martin Seligman in Learned Optimism, and by Jonathan Haidt, who offers three ways we can “change our minds.” We can reduce fearful or negative thoughts by meditation, practiced regularly over several months; by cognitive therapy, which teaches us to dispute our irrational beliefs; and by medications such as Prozac or other serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
This is not to say that to change’s one outlook is easy. For some people suffering from severe depression, either from the cognitive lottery or from critical life events, it may be a lifelong struggle. This is not a discussion about who wins and who loses, but a discussion about reality and a good life.
A Final Word: Meliorism
Being a realistic optimist does not mean that we must be complacent in the face of suffering. Such a person is an optimist, but also realistic, and necessarily acknowledges challenges and suffering.
William James offers a word that he thinks mediates between optimism and pessimism, “meliorism,” whose Latin root means “better” (as in the word, “ameliorate”). As James puts it, meliorism holds that “improvement is at least possible.”
Look around us in our home and society: what could be made better? Hopefully most of us will not have to overcome challenges as great as those faced by the Lewis and Clark expedition, but isn’t there a fighting chance that if certain conditions are brought about, by the involvement of enough people, we can improve education, cooperation, trust, housing, nutrition, responsibility, meaningful freedom, and more?
Our ideals, writes James, are not just abstract thoughts, “they are live possibilities” and “we are their live champions.”
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 The facts in this section come from Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2002).
 Ambrose, 227.
 Seligman, Authentic Happiness, 9-10 (New York: The Free Press, 2002).
 Seligman, 83.
 James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 80 (originally published 1902; New York: Penguin Books, 1982).
 James, Varieties, 88.
 Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, 33 (New York: Basic Books, 2006).
 Haidt, 33.
 Haidt, 35 – 44.
 James, Pragmatism, 61 (originally published 1907; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975).
 James, Pragmatism, 137.
Eternal optimism for me. Always try to make a positive difference. Stimulating thoughts as always. Have a great new year.
Thank you, Bob. And best to you for a great year, too.
I consider myself an optimist. I guess after reading this I would say, a worrying optimist. Why would anyone admit to being a pessimist? Optimist = Good, Pessimist = Bad. Life is uncontrollable and that is why I would become a Pessimist. That way I can explain how I lost control of life – “It’s not my fault, it is just the way things are and I can’t control it.
I have been pretty blessed in my life, so maybe that is why I am an optimist. I guess you get pessimistic when you get sick or lose a loved one.
I don’t think that much about life until Dr. Norris makes me by writing things like this. Maybe a unexamined life is not so bad after all.
Ike, thanks so much for your good insights. Your last sentence made me laugh!
I liked the term realistic optimist, which I saw as basically meaning, hope for the best, plan for the worst. But I think a life without pessimism makes for a poor optimist…you have to know evil to understand good. I’ve worked both sides of the fence, but in reviewing the last 7 decades, I find I am solidly an optimist because somewhere along the line, I learned how to embrace finding solutions to life’s vagaries.
Happy New Year to you Norris. Let’s keep trying…
Gary, thanks for your good insights on optimism and pessimism. Happy New Year to you, too.
Great thought-provoking post, Norris. I enjoyed the story of Meriwether Lewis and the discussion about Optimism, Pessimism and Meliorism. If there is a spectrum, I consider myself leaning towards optimism but self-reporting as a realistic optimist. I agree with Ike, “Why would anyone admit to being a pessimist”
These posts are so well thought out. Thank you for the effort you put into this information exchange and happy new year!
Rebecca, thanks so much for your good insights and kind comments on my post on optimism and pessimism. Happy New Year to you, too!
Another excellent essay. Norris is such a wonderful and insightful deep thinker….and so modest. . Has the prescient and uncanny ability to help us understand ourselves and others better.. Thank you for continuing to share your talented writing.and for teaching me a new word: meliorism.
Bill, thank you for writing. Your words mean a great deal to me. I look forward to hearing you use that new word. 🙂
Thank you, Dr. Frederick. Another great work from you that not only intrigues and challenges but also encourages as well.
Meliorism it is!
Ercel, thank you so much for your kind words!
Fantastic post, Dr. Frederick. So enjoyed reading about optimism and pessimism in applied, social science, and philosophical contexts. As always, thanks for providing the tools to inquire into my own habits and predispositions.
Zachary, thank you for your encouraging words and for the connections and uses you see in my post!
Thanks Norris for your insight and a new word, meliorism.What comes to mind is the glass half empty or half full. At 96, l prefer to think of my glass as half full!
Flo, thanks so much for writing. Use “meliorism” every day for a week and it will be yours! 🙂 It is wonderful to hear that “At 96, l prefer to think of my glass as half full.”
Norris, I thoroughly enjoyed (and benefited from) this writing. Glad I wasn’t tapped for the Lewis & Clark Expedition ……I’m certainly not as strong as those hardy explorers must have been.
Interestingly, when you asked the first question I immediately labeled myself as a “Realist”, but when I reached the latter part of your writing I realized that “Realistic Optimist” is a much better description. When one is hopeful, there is always hope. So a positive “realistic optimism” can yield hope. But hope without action may be for naught, so it is up to us to do what we can to influence outcomes toward the positive.
Randy, thank you so much for your encouraging and insightful comments. Like you, I am glad I didn’t have to go on the Lewis & Clark Expedition! Your last sentence is a good one for us all to remember: “But hope without action may be for naught, so it is up to us to do what we can to influence outcomes toward the positive.”
I have long appreciated William James, and his term “meliorism” fits me, I believe. As a pastor I have hope, but I am also reminded most days that there is much pain in the world around me. The burdens some people carry are huge. When someone knocks on the door and says “Pastor, do you have a minute?” it is rarely because they are having a good day, and it is almost never “a minute.” Still, I have seen in even the most broken people that “improvement is at least possible” (to quote James). Sometimes, it even comes to pass. As for optimism or pessimism, I believe what we put into our minds plays a major role. The origin of the expression “Garbage in, garbage out” may be debated, but the truth of the phrase is not. I believe it applies to what we “put in” to our minds, and what then “comes out” in terms of our thoughts, words, and actions. Am I feeding my mind and spirit good things or garbage? I cannot imagine that a lot of “garbage in” (say, continually having one of the 24-hour opinion channels on in the background) will result in much optimism, or even meliorism. On the other hand, if we are intentionally caring about what we “put in,” better things will inevitably “come out” – maybe even some optimism in a world that gives us ample cause to feel pessimistic.
Scott, thanks so much for your insightful comments. I appreciated your connections to James and meliorism, and your observation there is indeed much pain in the world around us all. Your “garbage in, garbage out” is an insight all of us should remember.
Glad to see your important contribution to this reader group, Norris. In my many years of executive coaching in the leadership arena, I have been able to utilize assessment instruments with high validity and reliability. Two of those include looking at traits on optimism and well-being. From time to time, like your pastor friend who has commented already, a person would come into my circle of care and report markedly low scores. I would talk with each individual, ask if their scores felt real to them, and 99% would say yes. We would then talk through what I came to term “chronic” or “episodic” pessimism. An example, if one recently had been through a life event such as death of a child, spouse, or other family member, and if the person had taken our assessments soon afterwards, we might validate an episodic period of pessimism or depression or both. Moe often that not, it proved to be chronic. Folks would tell me they felt like each day they awoke with a 10 pound weight already on their shoulders. Some wanted to explore, and others did not. Many adverse formative experiences in early life, can bear on creating the chronic belief that “the glass is half empty.” Conversely, those with high scores would almost always confirm their optimistic outlook on life even when tough things came or would come to them. In my work a tiny percentage could undertake emotional intelligence development to learn and build a muscle of optimism. It is extraordinary when one is able to do it. So glad you put the spotlight on these areas of human development and existence.
Charles, thanks so much for sharing your knowledge and experience in your many years of coaching. Your distinction between “chronic” or “episodic” pessimism is very helpful. You offer us much to think about with your experience of those with chronic pessimism, “In my work a tiny percentage could undertake emotional intelligence development to learn and build a muscle of optimism. It is extraordinary when one is able to do it.”