Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Clarifying Optimism

A friend once told me that being happy is far more difficult than being unhappy. She said that "happy" takes a certain kind of bravery and confidence and at times, pain. I like this thought and I like reflecting on the idea of happiness. 

A quick Amazon book search tells me that there are roughly 28,893 books related to "happiness." Some titles express happiness as a skill that we can all master, suggesting that real, authentic happiness can be achieved every single day. They promise that optimism can be learned and that it alone has the power of changing our minds and lives for the better. And while I do not doubt that many of these authors and books are worthwhile and have helped many people significantly improve their lives, I find my friend's point of view the most honest. And yet, even with her satisfactory answer, I've still found myself feeling somewhat skeptical. 

Some people subscribe their permanent state of being to optimism with the hope of attracting its counterpart, happiness. I've never described myself as particularly happy or unhappy, because I've not always been certain what that is supposed to feel like. Should my happiness feel the same as yours? And while it sounds nice to describe myself as particularly optimistic, I don't know if that's really the case either. So I've been trying clarify optimism:

op·ti·mism  
/ˈäptəˌmizəm/
Noun
  1. Hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.
2.  The tendency to expect the best and see the best in all things. 


Optimism suggests that we are seeking our most optimal state of being. As an ideology, that sounds pretty good. But is that all it is? An ideal set with the hope of achieving a better future? Where does that leave the present? This definition of optimism has become a quick fix for excusing negative feelings. When something goes wrong, choose optimism and hope for the best. 

Does hoping for the best suggest that some element of happiness exists within every reality? When are we supposed to feel bad? If we never feel bad, how do we know when to feel good? I don't believe that we can actually sustain happiness as a constant state of being and I don't believe that we should try. When asking a person how they are doing, nothing feels more numb to me than the repetitive response of "great." As humans we are engineered to seek out social connections with one another, but we so easily fail to achieve fulfilling relationships by constantly portraying idealistic versions of ourselves. 

I've come to the conclusion that happiness is not a skill to be learned. This not an excuse for being unpleasant, I simply don't think happiness is easily defined or a characteristic that we mystically attain after enough time spent being optimistic. Holding onto ideals or fantasies becomes harmful when we are no longer able to distinguish them from what is real. I associate happiness with a state of awareness. I believe that the result of mindfully allowing ourselves to exist within the very realistic present provides far greater feelings of fulfillment and potential. 

So rather than relying on an overly positive outlook of the future or a rose-tinted view of the present, I've clarified optimism as the opportunity to constructively reflect upon the past and accurately experience the present; both happy and sad. I choose to understand optimism as the ability to thrive and not dwell. I find that this definition combats anxiety with the reassurance that the more I allow myself to enjoy the present, the better the past and future will become. 

2 comments:

Danielle Noah said...

This couldn’t have come at a better timing.

I do consider myself to be a happy person in general. But as of late, I haven’t been able to get out of a funk. My parents taught me that happiness is a choice because it is about my attitude but I keep forgetting… or maybe I am just choosing to be unhappy.

“A friend once told me that being happy is far more difficult than being unhappy. She said that "happy" takes a certain kind of bravery and confidence and at times, pain.”

“I choose to understand optimism as the ability to thrive and not dwell.”

Thank you for the reminder and encouragement.

I hope you are well! It is nice to have your blogging back.

Dani

Ashly Stewart said...

Ah, thanks! It's good to have a reader :) This turns out to be the 6th year I've kept a blog and last year I only posted 3 times so I've decided I'd try again. I'm glad you found something in this post, it's a topic that's been weighing on my mind lately. Again, not because I'm particularly unhappy, just confused from time to time about what happy is. My mom tells me similar things about it being a choice or suggests that it's just "what it's like to be in your 20s." Maybe she's right? Or maybe there is a fundamental shift? After posting this I was discussing with a friend and she recommended a book called Cruel Optimism by Lauren Berlant. It looks like a fascinating blend of academic and creative writing: http://rorotoko.com/interview/20120605_berlant_lauren_on_cruel_optimism/ I'd also recommend the book I'm currently reading called The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for the Age of Anxiety. It's great! Good to hear from you!