Has optimism gone too far? For decades, America’s obsession with optimism and cheerfulness has reinforced a false sense of realism and pragmatism. The media has endlessly touted optimism as the “winning formula to success”—in politics, in business, in the workplace, and in physical, mental, and social wellbeing. The self-help movement has thrust optimism as the lone asset that can help people who are battling illness or adversity.
Consider what the ever-smiling, ever-so-cheerful celebrity chef Rachel Ray said on her forthcoming 38th birthday in her “Every Day with Rachael Ray” magazine, issue of August-September 2006:
This August, I’m celebrating another birthday! Yeah! I love fresh starts and all the promise that comes with the first day of a new birthday year. Wrinkles? I can buy cream to smooth them out, but I wouldn’t change my age or give back one minute of my life. Good days and bad, it’s been a tasty time so far!
Armed with boosterish phrases such as those frequently repeated ad absurdum by the likes of Oprah and Tony Robbins and volumes such as “The Power of Positive Thinking” that consist of idealistic declarations, society has been inoculated to appreciate nothing but optimism, liveliness, oomph and unbridled enthusiasm. Optimism has become almost a cult. Pessimism and realism come with a deep stigma. Realists are branded cynics and cynics are quickly shunned as outcasts.
The problem is that persuaded by the promise of positive thinking, optimists tend to overlook the reality, develop a false sense of hope, become too attached to the possibility of positive outcomes. Besides, optimists don’t plan for the downside. Optimists cannot face the possibility of failure. They can get particularly anxious and demoralized when their expectations are dashed and their efforts fail.
Buddhism encourages us to be realistic; to see things as the truly are. Buddhism emphasizes that we should not place importance on worldly affairs. Emptiness of our natural existence means that our world is a projected world of labels and limitations that are put into place based upon our rearing, cultural background, and habituation. The way we reflect and see our own lives — optimistically, pessimistically, or realistically—is a combination of the disposition we’re born with, the schooling and training we undergo, and the atmosphere we grow up in.
Realism is perhaps the most dominant tool that the Buddha taught his followers to bring about personal change and transformation. Realism is actually very empowering. Realism confers certain advantages such as an ability to understand and take risks, persist at major undertakings, and survive distressing events. The rationale of realism diminishes disappointment and reduces the negative effects.
Realism allows us to think more flexibly and creatively.