Mandatory Optimism

You can fake a smile. You can fake a laugh. You can even fake an orgasm; just ask Meg Ryan. She was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally in which she faked an orgasm with such gusto it virtually cemented her place in popular culture.

Western culture has a love-hate relationship with faking it. On one hand we are told to “fake it until we make it.” On the other hand we are told, “be real; be true to yourself.” Despite the contradiction, it is generally agreed that happiness and optimism are desirable traits. If you’re not positive, if you’re not an optimist, there must be something wrong with you.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the workplace. To lack enthusiasm is to risk being ostracized by your co-workers. Worse, a soporific demeanor can seriously limit your opportunities for career advancement. If you want to move up the ladder, you had better learn how to turn that frown upside down. The rewards of a cheery, optimistic attitude are clear. Researchers Ron Kaniel, Cade Massey and David T. Robinson studied the effect of an optimistic disposition on MBA students’ job searches and then promotions. They found that optimistic people were more likely to have higher starting salaries and were more likely to be promoted within their first two years on the job. Even those people who were less naturally optimistic could benefit by pretending to be. Walking around the office with a smile on your face and a skip in your step might be the best way to get a raise, or even that corner office everyone is vying for.

The media reinforces excitement as the penultimate human emotion. Public figures feigning – or at the very least exaggerating – excitement are front and centre in the popular press. A professional athlete touts his excitement at being traded to a small-market team; a CEO in a black turtleneck talks about how thrilled he is to announce a new, smaller MP3 player; a Hollywood actress declares her pleasure working with “such a talented cast.” Everyone is smiling. Everyone is thinking positively.

Is there no place in this world for pessimism? Does being excited and enthusiastic make us better workers, better spouses, and better human beings? Science might have the answer. Psychologists are beginning to challenge the idea that optimism is the ideal state of mind; however suggesting that pessimism might serve an important function is almost heresy in a culture obsessed by optimism. “In America, optimism has become almost like a cult,” says Aaron Sackett, a psychologist at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. To be labeled a pessimist is to risk being alienated and marginalized by co-workers. However, new research suggests that a balance between optimistic and pessimistic thinking may offer a more effective means of making smart decisions.  In her article The Uses and Abuses of Optimism and Pessimism, author Annie Murphy Paul says:

Successful people often employ pessimism in a strategic way to motivate and prepare themselves for the future. It’s simply not the case that optimism is “good” and pessimism is “bad”—although that’s how we’ve been encouraged to think about them. Rather, both are functional. And both have value.

Pessimism is an important counterbalance to optimism. The drawback of suppressing it is well exampled by the great recession of 2008. In a culture that celebrates the excitement of optimism, and all things delightful, who in their right mind would dare risk dissention? Anyone brave enough to question the wisdom of sub-prime mortgages, faced the prospect of being labeled a pessimist, a worrywart or even a fear monger.

Despite the proven benefits of balanced thinking, public perception is hard to change. Excitement and positive thinking are virtually mandatory in modern society. It’s no wonder that people try so hard to appear positive; they are motivated by the attainment of happiness, but as William Bennett noted: “Happiness is like a cat, if you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap.”

Society propagates an illusion that is both unhealthy and dangerous when it limits peoples’ ability to speak truthfully. Allowing for the possibility that bad things really do happen, and that life isn’t a perpetual amusement park ride, we need to allow people the freedom to acknowledge it. Sometimes your job sucks. Sometimes you have a bad day. Sometimes life is tedious. Life is made up of highs and lows, but if we whitewash the world with unrealistic optimism and feigned enthusiasm, we risk losing touch with what makes life worth living: genuine happiness.

All Opinions Being Equal

As Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry) said, “Opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one.” He was right; you don’t have to look far to find opinions on virtually every topic from atheism to vegetarianism. Television, magazines, books, blogs and YouTube videos serve to promulgate opinions. With such a cornucopia of convictions, you can now live your entire life without ever being forced to listen to opinions you don’t agree with. If confronted by an opinion you don’t like, just change the channel or revise your search. Avoid the uncomfortable circumstance of having your opinions challenged, or worse yet, proven wrong. Simply find someone who shares your viewpoints and revel in the reaffirmations they provide. If you’re conservative, Fox News will satiate your desire to see liberals berated. Lefty? No problem, MSNBC is just a click away. Maybe you’re a believer of intelligent design. With a quick search on YouTube you can learn about how silly the theory of evolution is.  And what’s the harm; tolerance is good right? Should we not accept, and even celebrate, the diversity of opinions within our culture?

To answer that question, it is helpful to examine the nature of opinions and to understand the differences between personal opinions and informed opinions. A personal opinion is subjective. For example, if one woman loves chocolate ice cream, she might believe it to be the best flavour; however another woman may disagree with that opinion, instead preferring vanilla. Opinions of this variety might be thought of as personal preferences. It would be silly to argue that one opinion about the best ice cream is any better than the next. In this regard, all opinions that reflect personal preference are equally valid.

Not all opinions relate to personal preferences. Some opinions reference certain facts about the world. These facts are not subjective, but objective. It is true that some facts are verifiable and demonstrable, independently of what we may think about them. Unlike the opinions about ice cream, which relate to personal inclinations, opinions about the objective world can be right or wrong; therefore some opinions are valid while others are invalid. As author Douglas Adams said, “All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.” Where it was once a common opinion that the world was flat, we now know that the world is spherical. Even though many people once held that false belief, the truth was independent of those beliefs.

Surely we can celebrate the diversity of opinions as they relate to personal inclinations, but invalid opinions about the objective world can range from faintly foolish to decidedly deleterious. If, for example, a person holds the opinion that aliens are responsible for the assassination of JFK, that opinion is not likely to cause serious harm to anybody, save the holder. At most, that person may face certain social disadvantages from those that disagree with that person’s extravagant claims. However other invalid opinions can lead to real harm. Recently, a colleague of mine suggested that scientific findings about global warming were merely opinions. This statement troubled me. It smacked of a relativistic worldview that effectively negates any path to objectivity. While I agree that my personal view on global warming is an opinion, I would argue that it is an informed opinion. Whether or not it is true, is independent of what I think about it. It is not a personal, subjective opinion. It is an objective opinion based on certain empirical facts about the world. Whereas believing in aliens may be largely innocuous, believing that global warming is not caused by human activity can lead to actions that are detrimental to the long-term health of the environment. If enough people held that opinion, the path towards disastrous climate change would become a four-lane highway.

So how do we decide whose opinions to accept and whose to reject? While the answer to that question may be best left to professional philosophers, a simple decision procedure for qualifying the validity of an opinion can be adopted by any rational being. Hence, when forming opinions or evaluating the opinions of others it is advisable to begin by asking yourself whether the opinion in question can be verified through direct observation or by rational argument. If the opinion, which is based on a set of premises or claims, cannot be directly tested, it may be necessary to accept proofs provided by others – i.e. expert testimony. When appealing to the testimony of another, it is necessary to evaluate the expertise or authority of the other. In addition, it is vital to consider number of other experts that support the claim, the possible motives for supporting the claim and the means by which the claim was advanced.

Clearly, not all opinions are equal. The advice of a medical doctor is more valuable to a cancer patient than the advice of a self-help guru who suggests, “Chemotherapy is not needed. It’s mind over matter.” Unfortunately the general public has been caught up in the politicizing of ideas and even scientific facts are now up for debate. Opinions that are supported by rational argument and empirical evidence, opinions that are tested and verified over and over cease to be opinions – they are accepted as fact. But when any fact can be disavowed, when any fact can be dismissed, when any fact can be discredited without appeal to evidence, we are only left with our opinions; unfortunately our opinions are notoriously biased and uninformed.