If we’re looking for a kind of optimism that can be sustained in the face of repeated setbacks, then it should be an optimism that doesn’t make false promises, doesn’t assure us that things will turn out how we want. An optimism that isn’t a form of make believe, asking us to set aside what we know and to pretend that things are better than they are. But if an optimism isn’t sunny, what good is it? If it doesn’t involve positive expectations, how can it energize us?
We can find a more sustainable optimism, and one that’s still encouraging, if we focus on our own adaptive strength, our own ability to take whatever’s given to us and make something good out of it. Instead of expecting external reality to deliver positive outcomes — whether by chance or through our own pleading and prodding — we can focus on the future of our inner experiences. We can look forward to positive “incomes,” trusting that we’ll learn, grow, and find a step forward regardless of what happens.
In this parlance, an outcome is “what happens” outside the self — it’s how a situation turns out, how external events unfold. If you win the lottery, that’s an outcome.
Income is used here to mean an “inner outcome” or “inner return” or “inner reward” — it’s how we experience a situation, and how we learn or grow from it, or fail to do so.
In typical usage, income is a monetary thing, but here it’s the opposite. The way you feel about winning the lottery and how it affects your inner landscape — that’s the “income” of the lottery. If winning sends you into a spiral of consumption and puts you in conflict with friends and family, the “income” of the lottery could be negative. But losing the lottery could remind you that you already have enough money to go on a camping trip, and to do many of the other things on your bucket list, so it could have a positive income.
To find a version of optimism that doesn’t keep making false promises, we can shift our focus from outcome to income. Traditional optimism is about outcomes, but those fluctuate in ways that are totally outside our control or foresight. A more sustainable optimism would emphasize that we can discover a way to make a positive “income” out of most situations we face. That’s good news, because arguably, incomes are more important that outcomes. Our experiences are what we truly have in life — how we feel is more important than what happens outside us.
If it’s this easy to make optimism sustainable and to remove it from conflict with an uncooperative reality, just by changing the focal point from outcome to income, why don’t more people do this? Of course, the rephrasing is easy, the enactment is hard.
Outcomes are more tangible and more exciting than incomes. We can be excited about the outcome of winning the lottery. But even if we acknowledge that losing the lottery might have some educational benefits and might offer a chance for reflection — a positive “income,” so to speak — it’s really hard to be excited about that.
Focusing on outcomes helps us perform. If we’re playing a tennis game and we want to play well, we’ve got to concentrate on the outcome of winning. To find the motivation to do that, we need to believe we can win, even if our opponent is better than us. We need to have traditional, outcome-based optimism.
Outcomes often seem more important and urgent than incomes, contradicting a point that was made earlier. The outcome of a job interview might affect your future livelihood and ability to feed your family. You’re not looking to have a positive experience or grow as a person through the interview, you just need the work. Being optimistic about your inner experience of the interview process and what you could learn from it might seem superfluous.
The income of a situation might not be knowable in advance. It depends on the outcome happening first, and on our choosing a way to respond. Since we can’t see it or know what form the income might take, we might find it hard to look forward to.
We might also remember occasions when we struggled to adapt to a situation or discover any positive meaning in it. Hardships can make us stronger, but they can also make us weaker and there might not be any benefit — internal or external — that we can identify. Our perspective on a situation might be malleable, but not easily so, and not endlessly so. Therefore, the idea that we can discover a way to make a positive “income” out of any state of affairs might seem like wishful thinking. We might feel that the income is dictated by the outcome and not by us.
Finally, when we’re working to adapt to a new situation, we might find that the only way to feel good about where we are now is to imagine good things happening ahead. Sometimes we just need to practice blind optimism, judicious self-deception, irrational hope, an unfounded faith that external events will proceed in our favor, if we’re going to have any kind of positive inner experience in the present. Blind optimism, then, is a necessary tool. To draw a positive income from a situation that feels hopeless, looking within ourselves might not suffice; we might need to imagine and trust in positive future outcomes ahead.
So there are reasons why “Don’t focus on the outcome, focus on the income” is easier said than done. But why not be optimistic that, at least some of the time, we’ll be able to do it, and it’ll help us?