If optimism is the conviction that everything is going to work out as we hope, then it’s not sustainable. Not without willful ignorance. Sooner or later, a really bad thing will happen, and our confidence in positive outcomes will be shattered. If it takes a streak of good luck to persuade a person to be an optimist, but if a streak of bad luck could later convert them to pessimism, then their worldview is not their own – it’s being yanked around by happenstance. Any version of optimism that depends on how things turn out – or requires blindness to misfortune – is not sustainable optimism.

The traditional form of optimism – the expectation of positive outcomes – can be put to rest with a few basic observations about reality. We’re all going to die. Not only us, but everyone we’ve ever loved, indeed everyone we’ve ever met, and everyone they’ve ever met. Our species teeters on the verge of self-inflicted calamity including environmental disaster and nuclear annihilation. But even if those threats are resolved favorably, the sun is going to die sometime. It’ll expand into a red giant and destroy the earth – what’s left of the earth after our misadventures here.

A sustainable form of optimism must not require or assume that the future will unfold as we individuals, or as our species would want – because maybe it won’t. In the long term, it definitely won’t. We could colonize other planets but their suns will die too – it’s not looking great.

What’s a form of optimism that doesn’t depend on good things happening – on dreams coming true – on hard work bearing fruit – on virtue being recognized – or on coin flips turning out according to the bets we’ve placed? What’s a form of optimism that might be resilient to the argument that “This didn’t go well. And that didn’t go well. And that other thing didn’t go well either. See, I shouldn’t have expected success!”

A sustainable form of optimism might begin with the well-known quote that “It’s not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters.” That is to say, we can shape the future through our attitude to it – the perspective we choose to take. Unfortunately, when this concept is discussed, it often turns into an advertisement for traditional, unsustainable optimism. 

As evidence for the inspiring promise that we can shape our own future by how we view it, we are often presented with a rags-to-riches story where, for example, an individual battled cancer and a learning disability in their childhood, then suffered bankruptcy and depression in their early career, but because they decided to take a good attitude, they went on to achieve great success in business, becoming a bestselling author and well-known philanthropist. In other words, we are being shown an example of a good outcome and told that if only we do a certain thing – taking a positive attitude – we can have an outcome like that.

These stories conveniently omit the fact that there might be another person who battled cancer and a learning disability in their childhood, then suffered bankruptcy and depression in their early career, then decided to take a positive attitude and launched a promising new business, but got run over by a bus. They were so positive, but the bus didn’t care.

A sustainable form of optimism would not promise that our attitude can give us the external outcomes we want; rather it would focus on the way our attitude can give us better and more satisfying experiences. A truly inspiring story might be that there was a person who battled cancer and a learning disability in their childhood, then suffered bankruptcy and depression in their early career, then decided to take a positive attitude, and because of their newfound perspective, they felt calmer, happier, and more whole – they had better relationships and they were able to maintain a sense of inner peace throughout the rest of their life. Of course, it’s unlikely we’ll hear that story because inner peace, in the absence of external accomplishments that make us jealous, is not the kind of thing we tend to gossip about.

Still, if it turned out that inner peace were attainable through simple choices we could each make, that would be a cause for optimism, right? If we could find fulfillment in life not by achieving a specific outcome, but by learning to recognize and draw our attention to those sources of fulfillment that exist inside any situation we happen to face, that would be good news, wouldn’t it?

A sustainable form of optimism begins with the understanding that any situation can be seen from different vantage points. Each vantage point, if we adopt it, creates a specific way of experiencing the situation, and each way we experience a situation brings specific possibilities into view. One situation, two perspectives, two very different experiences with different paths forward.

Some perspectives are devaluing, which means they tend to diminish the worth or advantage we notice in a situation, and they tend to belittle the value of our own efforts and the significance of our prospects. Other perspectives are worthening or “envaluing,” which means they tend to draw our attention to what’s favorable in a situation, to what agency we can manifest there, and to what opportunities are available to us, not just to further our own interests, but to help others too.

Sustainable optimism is believing that in any situation, there’s meaning to be found – there’s an envaluing perspective to be discovered. Sustainable optimism is being confident we can find that envaluing perspective, no matter where we are or what happens. It’s to have faith that when the situation changes – because of an outcome positive or negative – there will be a new envaluing perspective, appropriate to the new situation, and we’ll be able to find it at the time. Sustainable optimism is the conviction that we can always discover meaning, hope, and a path forward – whether events unfold in the way we’re trying to steer them, or not.

Unsustainable optimism looks to future outcomes with the irrational confidence of a rosy-eyed fortune teller. Sustainable optimism looks to future experiences – the experiences we create by responding to outcomes through our chosen perspective – and it trusts we’ll be able to make positive experiences out of what’s given to us.

Now, it might be true that we start achieving better outcomes – we seem to have better “luck” – the better our attitude, the more we open ourselves to opportunity, but there’s no guarantee of anything. If we think of external reality as a dealmaker, we’ll someday feel cheated by a deal gone wrong. Optimism will seem foolish when unexpected and undeserved adversity first strikes. But we’ll be making a mistake if we look at what happens as a proof or refutation of the value of our outlook. That value is manifested in our inner experience. Did you feel better throughout a situation, did you have a better time because you held an envaluing perspective? That is proof enough.

Sustainable optimism should not ask you to deny what you see, but it should invite you to look further. A typical description of an optimist is someone who sees a glass as half full rather than half empty, but what if the glass just looks half empty to you and it’s a struggle to change that perception? Sustainable optimism would be to notice that the half-emptiness of the glass might have something worthwhile about it. Maybe it reminds you that you’ve been fortunate to consume so much of a delicious beverage already? Or maybe you hate the medicinal concoction that’s in the glass and the half-emptiness makes you glad there’s not so much left? If half-emptiness is a fixed perception, there is still the leeway to find an envaluing way of perceiving that perception.

Of course, sustainable optimism as just described might seem to place too much of a burden on the individual. After a severe hardship or even sometimes just a small frustration, a person might be too exhausted to find an envaluing perspective even if they believe that it’s there. If someone has just lost a loved one or suffered a frightening health setback, for example, it might seem unrealistic – even cruel – to expect them to handle that situation while also doing the work to find positive meaning in it.

So this is where a truly sustainable optimism must extend beyond the self. It must include the belief that in those moments when you cannot find or cannot hold an envaluing perspective, other people can help you do that. ■

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