The Flexible Optimist vs. Naive Optimism

In the long run, a person with a generally optimistic outlook will experience more opportunities in life for careers, friendships, and positive life experiences, than the chronic pessimist. But pessimism does have its uses for the flexible optimist.

The wise psychologist Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, does not recommend universal optimism or “naive optimism.” The naive optimist insists that “everything will work out in the end,” in all circumstances. A flexible optimist understands that there are situations that require a more realistic and sometimes pessimistic approach, in order to avoid predictable disaster.

Life is Hard, Then We Die

Jordan Peterson has been surprisingly successful by encouraging his audience to confront their difficulties and responsibilities, and to learn to live up to them. According to Peterson, life is tragic. Dealing with the tragedy of life is a human’s primary duty and opportunity. In many ways, Peterson’s ideas are consistent with the ancient Stoic philosophies.

Core values of Stoicism include 1) speaking plainly, rather than trying to dazzle or bamboozle one’s audience with fancy or confusing speech (as in Sophism); 2) accepting that pleasant and unpleasant things are going to happen; 3) working in accord with nature (i.e., functioning within the confines of how things actually work, as opposed to thinking without humility that you know better or can single-handedly overturn things without causing more problems; 4) developing wisdom and strength of character so that even under the most trying of times, you can demonstrate competence and composure; and above all else 5) always put wisdom and virtue first.


Stoics accept the tragic nature of life, but they are not pessimists. They insist on developing an innate wisdom and strength that allows the person to rise above adversity, and to take joy in the challenge of overcoming difficulties.

Why Not Pessimism?

People who are pessimistic tend to use escapist or avoidant behaviors when dealing with stress; they may also let their doubts about the future discourage them from trying.

People who are optimistic, on the other hand, actively pursue things that will improve their well-being and try to minimize the stress in their lives. They are generally more hopeful about the future.5

Optimism vs. Pessimism

Paradoxically, the naive optimist may share many behaviors with the hopeless pessimist, described above. Both pessimists and naive optimists use escapist, avoidant, and fantastical behaviors and beliefs to avoid the implications of “this tragic life.” Stoics and flexible optimists take a more robust approach to adversity, and often train themselves for it.

Accepting the Dark Side of Life to Achieve Resilience

Rather than living with a naive optimism that everything will work out in the end, we should periodically meditate on losing the things we cherish most. They thought that if we make a habit of visualizing career or relationship failure, sickness, betrayal, or even death, we will become akin to the king who fortifies his kingdom from invasion. Over time we will develop a psychological armor to help us endure the hardships of life. “He robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming beforehand.” (Seneca, Letters from a Stoic) wrote Seneca. Or as he further explained:

“Everyone approaches a danger with more courage if he has prepared in advance how to confront it. Anyone can endure difficulties better if he has previously practiced how to deal with them. People who are unprepared can be unhinged by even the smallest of things.”

Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius

Many shy away from this practice believing that meditating on the dark side of life will breed a dark pessimism. For after all, isn’t it better to remain on the sunnier side of life? While it is common in our day to assume this, not all cultures have adhered to this view. In fact, two of the golden ages of history – Ancient Athens and Elizabethan England – were times infused with a “tragic sense of life”. As the 20th century classicist Edith Hamilton noted, they had a lucid awareness that human life is “bound up with evil and that injustice [is] of the nature of things.” (Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way) Yet despite their proclivity to meditate on the evils of existence, these ages were also permeated with great productivity and a lust for life. It appears that in becoming aware and more accepting of the darker possibilities of life, we not only cultivate resilience, but also become more fully alive. 

Psychology of Resilience

When children grow up in an abusive household, different siblings may adopt different strategies to survive. One sibling may escape from the abuse into fantasy, creating a false narrative of his family when confronted by the outer world. Other siblings may reach into themselves for the strength and resilience to grow above the abusive situation, while maintaining their own internal honesty and integrity.

Unhealthy families perpetuate the survivor’s fantasy. Cyrulnik writes, “It is not unusual for a child to want to rescue her aggressor or preserve his image. So she lies in order to create a socially acceptable image in the mind of others. She invents an ideal father or a perfect mother, and disassociates him or her from the reality she is suffering in secret…The lie protects the child because it offers other people an idealized picture of his parents, and because that allows him to go on thinking that he is, like all children, and has parents who are normal. ‘So I am not the child of a monster.’ The lie that preserves the image of the parents actually helps to protect the child’s self-image.”

The healthier survivors have insight into the role of fantasy in their lives: Its importance, its salve on wounds.

Trauma, Resilience, and Fantasy

Of What Use is Honesty?

There is little controversy that honesty is a virtue. It is an excellence of character. It also promotes trust, fosters healthy relationships, strengthens organisations and societies, and prevents harm.

Sadly, though, honesty has gone missing in recent decades. It is largely absent from academic research. It seems to be rare in society. And it is not commonly found in discussions of how to become a better person.

Learned Honesty

Honesty leads to trust. Trust leads to a prosperous and workable society. If a society suffers from a loss of trust, it is doomed.

On the positive side, trust makes people feel eager to be part of a relationship or group, with a shared purpose and a willingness to depend on each other. When trust is intact, we will willingly contribute what is needed, not just by offering our presence, but also by sharing our dedication, talent, energy and honest thoughts on how the relationship or group is working.

Importance of Trust

When we are honest with ourselves about the relative benefit of optimism vs. pessimism in a given situation, we can experience all the benefits of a rational and flexible optimism while avoiding the disasters that fall on those who practice universal naive optimism.

“Learned Optimism” by psychologist Martin Seligman promotes the approach of a flexible optimism. It is no good claiming that everything works out for the best, “in this best of all possible worlds,” when anyone of sufficient age has seen countless examples to contradict that fantastical claim. Enmeshing young children into Panglossianism will prove a disastrous waste of their time, later in life, as they attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable.

Optimism is a wonderful approach to life which opens many doors to happiness, prosperity, and enjoyment. When optimism is tempered with a healthy peppering of pessimism, it becomes flexible optimism. And with a little luck, that can open the door to the best of possible worlds, more or less. Not a perfect world by any means, but better than most alternatives that are arrived at by way of sheer pessimism or naive optimism.

Bonus Question: Is China’s Xi an Optimist or a Pessimist?

Put plainly, as China’s economy stumbles and its global standing tumbles, Xi is quickly realizing that after almost a decade in power, his demand for “absolute loyalty” within the CCP remains quixotic at best—and foolhardy at worst. And that is a major cause for concern less than 10 months before the CCP’s 20th Party Congress, when Xi is expected to assume a once unthinkable third term as the party’s general secretary.

The Uneasy Xi

The answer to that bonus question may determine the level of background radiation for the planet over the next centuries.

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