We tend to think of optimism and pessimism as being the two extremes of a one-dimensional spectrum. The more optimistic you are, the less pessimistic you are, and vice-versa. The classic framework for contrasting these two temperaments is the glass-half-full versus glass-half-empty comparison. When presented with the exact same drinking glass, the optimist focuses on what is present while the pessimist focuses on what is lacking.
This one dimensional model is useful, because it illustrates the difference between the two, but I don’t think it fits very well with my anecdotal experience. It is possible to remain fully aware of the challenges or limitations you face while nevertheless hoping and working for a good outcome. I have met people who seem to have high levels of pessimism and optimism at the same time, and others who seem to just move through life without much of either trait. Do we lump all of those people in the middle of the spectrum?
Another option is to think of optimism and pessimism as independent traits in a two-dimensional model, as in the graph below:
The four quadrants of the graph correspond to different outlooks:
- Optimist: “The glass is half full.”
- Analyst: “There are 250 ml of fluid in a 500 ml container.”
- Pessimist: “The glass is half empty.”
- Realist: “I dunno. I just drank it.”
I think that generally I land somewhere in the upper half, probably in the Optimist quadrant but leaning towards Analyst. Maybe I’m on the border between the two. But I can think of times in my life, like that awful senior year of high school, where I spent a lot of time in the lower quadrants.
I also think that you can approach different parts of your life with different outlooks. In the neurology clinic I am in the analyst quadrant most of the time. When it comes to politics I tend to be a pessimist, with occasional forays into the analyst or realist quadrants. On the subject of gas stations I am a realist. (“I dunno. I just filled up the car.”) I am most optimistic on the subject of religion. (More on that later.)
We are Winning!
In late 2014, after living in the Midwest for over a decade, my wife and I decided to move across the country back to our western mountain home. This move was a complicated operation, with a thousand pieces that had to fit into place. First I had to find the right job in the right town, and then Marisa had to find the right house in the right neighborhood. We had to sell our old home, pack all of the things we wanted to bring with us, and get rid of the things we didn’t, all while continuing to work at my previous job and to take care of our seven children.
I said that my wife and I decided on this move together, which is technically true, but I should clarify that the whole thing was her idea and that I just went along with it. I was surprised at her unsinkable optimism for months on end while we prepared for this move. Maybe she felt the burden of leadership and rose to the occasion, or maybe she was just so excited to put an end to that long educational chapter of our lives.
She developed a mantra during those months, which has become a sort of family motto. It is this: “We are going to win!” Over months, as one by one the pieces fell into place, we started to say, “We are winning!” And eventually, when we finally settled into our desert paradise, we shouted together, “We win!“
In my daily huddle with my clinic team I often repeat this motto.”We have already won,” I say with a smile at the start of the day. “Now we just have to prove it.”
I’m Getting Better
I don’t think that optimism and pessimism are inborn personality traits, permanently baked into us. The human soul has plasticity — we can change, for the better or for the worse. We can influence and determine our own perspective on life.
During the darkest days of my residency I often felt myself sinking into the Pessimist-Realist quadrants. In a previous post I told about how I struggled to keep an optimistic outlook during those times, and how I made up a little song that I would sing to myself when I felt down:
One morning as I was getting ready for another long work day, I had self-critical thoughts intrude into my mind, and I felt my anxiety well up. In that moment I just wanted to give up trying.
But I said to myself, “I’m learning. I’m getting better. I’m getting better all the time.” Focusing on the progress I was making made me feel better, and my anxiety levels went down a notch or two so that I could face the day.
I had a similar challenge during my mission to England:
“It is hard to maintain faith and diligence when your work is almost universally dismissed and rejected so superficially. For me this was the biggest trial of my mission, and if it weren’t for the overwhelming optimism and hope in the message itself, I think I would have given in to despair and thrown in the towel.”
It was worth it — all of it. The stress and long work hours of my residency and my mission prepared me with the knowledge, experience, and skills that I use to serve my community and family today. And the efforts I made to keep my chin up were worth it, too. Keeping that growth mindset was critical for my emotional survival, and now that I look back I am astonished at how much I learned and experienced in such a short amount of time through those years.
Optimism in the Gospel
As I said before, the teachings of Jesus Christ are optimistic in their outlook. The prophets and apostles who teach of him tend to have that same approach. Here are some of my favorite quotes on the subject from prophets both modern and ancient:
“We have every reason to be optimistic in this world. Tragedy is around, yes. Problems everywhere, yes. But … you can’t, you don’t, build out of pessimism or cynicism. You look with optimism, work with faith, and things happen” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Gordon B. Hinckley, Chapter 3, “Cultivating an Attitude of Happiness and a Spirit of Optimism.”)
“And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them” (1 Nephi 3:7).
“But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).
“When I think of the future, I am overwhelmed with a feeling of positive optimism. […] Let me tell you what has been done to prepare us. Perhaps you will then understand why I do not fear the future, why I have such positive feelings of confidence” (Boyd K. Packer, “On Zion’s Hill,” October 2005 General Conference).
“Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory!” (Doctrine and Covenants 128:22)
“Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things; yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever” (Alma 26:12).
“Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest” (Joshua 1:9).
“Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God” (Ether 12:4).
“I have wondered what I might say to conclude this conference that would send you forth with the optimism about the future that I know the Lord wants you to feel.
“We live in a glorious age, foreseen by prophets for centuries. This is the dispensation when no spiritual blessing will be withheld from the righteous. Despite the world’s commotion, the Lord would have us look forward to the future ‘with joyful anticipation.’ Let us not spin our wheels in the memories of yesterday. The gathering of Israel moves forward. The Lord Jesus Christ directs the affairs of His Church, and it will achieve its divine objectives” (Russel M. Nelson, “A New Normal,” October 2020 General Conference).
I could go on and on (and I have before, several times). Notice that some of these quotes fit squarely in the Analyst quadrant of the graph. There is definitely a role for pessimism as an informant to our optimism. But the gospel is good news — it should make us look on the bright side. When it comes to the most important things in life we should always try to hope for a bright future.
Does the Lord really want us to feel optimistic? Yes!
These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.
Sometimes we crave a hero’s journey when all we really need is to do something simple.
An empirical approach to COVID-19 public policy, medicine, and matters of faith.
Thoughts on risk management in medicine, life, and faith.