Meditation helps us to see things as they really are, unclouded by our emotions and impulses.
Through diligent practice we learn to bring our minds under control, and so become more able to act wisely in the world.
That said, we humans do have a natural tendency to view the world through two major perception filters. Both of these can significantly affect our lives.
These two filters are optimism and pessimism.
And both of them can be good for you.
What Are Optimism and Pessimism?
Let’s think of optimism and pessimism as emotional lenses that affect the way we perceive the world.
Optimism can loosely be defined as a positive view of the world: the belief that life is generally good and/or that life will get better.
Pessimism is the opposite: a view of the world based on the belief that life is generally bad and/or that life will get worse.
In today’s world, there’s a lot of pressure on people to at least pretend to be upbeat and optimistic; we’re encouraged to see the glass as half-full, not half-empty, and to go through the world acting as though everything in life is okay.
In other words, pessimism isn’t valued much in society today.
But this is a pity, because both optimism and pessimism can be useful to our lives depending on the outcomes we want to achieve.
How Optimism Benefits Us
Optimism has a good reputation — and justly so, because optimism brings very real benefits to us.
Most importantly, optimism makes us more resilient, productive, and persevering.
People who see the world in an optimistic light are more likely to pursue challenge and to keep on going when the going gets tough. Life simply can’t keep them down for very long.
As a bonus, optimistic people also tend to be more likeable and attractive, allowing them to lead happier lives and get better responses from the people around them.
For these reasons, optimism is a pretty healthy general-purpose way to see the world. It’s applicable in a wide variety of situations and makes us more fun to be around.
And so it’s understandable why people encourage each other to employ it as a default option.
But what about pessimism?
The Advantages of Pessimism
It’s true that relentlessly pessimistic people aren’t much fun to have around.
And it’s also true that, if left uncontrolled, pessimism can spiral all the way into depression.
But pessimism does bring with it certain advantages.
Most importantly, pessimism makes us more accurate, detail-oriented, and realistic.
Optimists have a tendency to set unrealistically ambitious goals — not a good thing if your department’s being evaluated on its quarterly earnings!
Pessimists, with their naturally lower appetites for risk, aren’t likely to do that.
And so in risky fields where accuracy and attention to detail truly matter — such as construction, civil engineering, stockbroking, the military, and fire and rescue services — you want someone who is going to anticipate everything that is likely to go wrong, triple-check it, and devise appropriate countermeasures.
Visualizing disaster can also be much more motivating than visualizing success, since we humans are far more likely to try to avoid pain than to pursue pleasure. In fact, the evidence suggests that people who visualize and imagine positive outcomes can actually become less likely to take action!
It’s as if positive thinkers imagine that they already have what they want, and so they become less willing to strive for it.
To sum up: optimism and pessimism are emotional approaches to the world which can both benefit us in different circumstances. And if we’re wise, we’ll know how to match the right approach to the right situation.
Can We Really Choose the Way We See the World?
As mentioned above, both optimism and pessimism are emotional lenses. Both of them are ways by which we use emotion to make sense of the world.
But in reality the world is just the world. Events are just events. Any emotional colouring comes from us, not from the world.
As Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
At most, there are events and outcomes in life that support our preferences and goals, and events and outcomes that do not support our preferences and goals.
(It is perfectly possible, by the way, to have goals without becoming emotionally attached to them. This is because goals and emotions belong to two separate aspects of life.)
This is why I encourage meditation: because it gives you greater mastery over your emotions. You get to control your emotions instead of having them control you.
When you are master of your emotions you can choose how you respond to any situation. And that includes choosing how you will respond in different circumstances.
First decide what outcomes you want to achieve, and then choose the emotional lens through which you will view the world.
Give it a go, and in my next post I’ll go into greater detail about how we can achieve this.
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