Blind optimism, if taken to an extreme, could lead a person to walk off a cliff, confident in a soft landing until the moment of impact. But we face many situations in life where there’s no existential risk, where the greatest risk is only the risk of disappointment. When the context is safe enough – when blind optimism carries no chance of fatality – should we embrace it, or should we still tamp it down?

If you’ve entered the lottery, you could imagine that you’re going to win, even letting yourself feel sure of it. Is that a good idea? Certainly, your confidence in a positive outcome gives you a benefit that’s independent of the outcome itself. No matter whether you win or lose, you’ve gained days or weeks of looking forward to being filthy rich. All of those happy expectations might be better for relieving stress than counseling and a daily therapeutic massage.

So why don’t we always take this benefit, letting ourselves be sure of positive outcomes and thereby cashing in on all those moments of pleasant anticipation that our confidence would create? Of course, we’re afraid of the letdown we’ll feel if our predictions turn out wrong. The higher we climb, so they say, the harder we fall.

A negative outcome would do more than confront us with the “loss” of what we expected. It would also force us to accept that our judgement had been incorrect, which if it kept happening, could damage our confidence. Most of us aren’t professional fortune tellers but we still pride ourselves on our ability to predict the future. A string of faulty predictions is a threat to our self-esteem.

One way to handle these risks is through pessimism. If we make it a habit to expect everything to go poorly, we get to be proved right some of the time – maybe most of the time. Occasionally, we get to be surprised by something that goes better than expected. But pure pessimism subjects us to corrosive gloom until the outcome is known. The condition of believing that everything is headed for disaster is a stressful condition to live in.

A typical compromise is to blend optimism with a bit of pessimism to create what we might call “guarded optimism.” This is when we hope for, and secretly expect a positive outcome, all the while reminding ourself that hopes can be dashed and maybe we won’t get what we want. Sometimes we might use a pessimist’s language  – “I’m going to fail the test” – but we’re actually expressing guarded optimism. We know we won’t fail, and actually, we expect we’re going to do pretty well because we’ve studied hard, but we still want to avoid disappointment in case we’ve misjudged our preparedness.

Guarded optimism keeps us from putting all our eggs in one basket, so to speak. In the lottery example, if we’re convinced we’ll win, then what would stop us from going on a premature spending spree and racking up debt that we can’t later repay? Reminding ourselves that we might not win is a safeguard to behavior that would seem foolish in retrospect. And if we’re communicating our expectations to others, guarded optimism seems fairer to them – a willful delusion is one thing if we keep it to ourselves, but entangling others in our delusions raises a host of moral questions.

But if we choose guarded optimism over blind optimism, do we really get the advantage we’re looking for? If things go wrong, will our disappointment really be softened in the way we hope? Certainly, when faced with a negative outcome, the guarded optimist can save face, reminding themself that they were aware of this possibility from the beginning. They never ignored the risk; the “guard” they maintained now protects them from the accusation of gullibility. They had reserved the right to say “I knew this could happen!” and now they get to say it. But is this privilege worth the cost?

In the lead-up to the outcome, guarded optimism puts us into a constant conflict with ourselves, where our hopes rise and we try to push them down, then they rise again and the cycle repeats. One voice says, “It’s going to go well,” and another voice reminds us “It might not.” Our investment of psychic energy in maintaining this dialogue might increase our attachment to the desired outcome, and increase our fear of the undesired one. Now that we’ve spent so much time debating what might happen, now that we’ve worked so hard to achieve the perfect balance of hope and doubt, we really want it to go well.

Is it possible that the path of blind, effortless, simple, absolute optimism might leave us less disappointed by a negative outcome than guarded optimism? As a blind optimist, although we didn’t get what we wanted, we benefited from the joy of anticipating something good without the struggle of maintaining our guard. We never contemplated a bad result, so when a bad result came, it came as a surprise rather than as a realization of what we’d been dreading.

Could philosophy ever conclude that one outlook is the best overall? It seems that each is best for a different situation. Approaching a cliff, we should have pessimism. Having entered the sweepstakes, guarded optimism. Getting ready to play a soccer game, blind optimism, because that’ll help us perform the best. Pondering the future of humanity? Let’s address that elsewhere.

But the most fitting outlook is not only determined by the situation, it also depends on our personal disposition. If we have great confidence in our ability to cope with disappointment, and if our self-worth isn’t tied up in the accuracy of our predictions – that’s to say, if we are very comfortable with being wrong – then it might be easier to be a blind optimist, and to avail of the advantages that come from positive expectations, as long as we don’t do this when we’re standing on a precipice. ■

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