Last week, I struck up a conversation with a woman while we waited in the checkout line in the grocery store. And as usual on the weekend, I was rocking one of my smiley face shirts.
After chatting for a minute or so, she looked down at my shirt and then asked me flatly, “wow, you do like to smile a lot, don’t you?”
Admittedly, I was a little taken aback by the question, but I replied by saying, “Yeah, I do. I’m a happy guy and I view the world optimistically–it’s just who I am.”
She looked at me suspiciously and then condescendingly replied, “Hmm…okay. No offense, but optimism and smiling all the time isn’t a healthy mindset. It’s far healthier for your sanity to be a realist.” Then she paid for her groceries and shuffled out of the store.
Sadly, I’ve had a variation of this conversation hundreds of times since I’ve started this work years ago. Sometimes it frustrates me, sometimes it amuses me, but it always confuses me.
It’s time to set the record straight.
The Truth About Optimists
Before I dive headfirst into why realists confuse me, let’s discuss some common misconceptions about optimists first:
- Optimists have no clue how the real world works.
- Optimists are totally fake.
- Optimists are soft and weak-minded.
- Optimists love to stick their heads in the sand and ignore reality.
- Optimists constantly think “happy thoughts” while doing nothing.
I don’t know how to say this any clearer:
If you believe any of those things, then you have no clue about what optimism is really about.
You probably already know this about me, but I’ve been a proud optimist for most of my adult life. Even as I’m typing this, I feel like my optimism has been completely misunderstood–not only by strangers, but by some of the closest people in my life too. So, let me clear some things up.
Contrary to popular belief, optimists are fully aware of the bad things that can happen in our lives.
Optimists get flat tires. Optimists get fired from their jobs. Optimists get cheated on by their significant others. Optimists get cancer.
The difference is all in how the optimist chooses to deal with those things.
Instead of taking the easy route by complaining non-stop and wallowing in negativity with no intention of pulling yourself out of it, optimists do the complete opposite.
Optimists acknowledge the reality of the situation, then they do something that is far from easy.
They make the choice to look for the nuggets of positivity in the situation, and most importantly, they always take action towards a better outcome, regardless of the situation.
When faced with life challenges, that is when the optimist shines.
Instead of saying, “this sucks, I’m totally screwed,” the optimist will say, “this sucks right now, but I will find a way to make this better.”
The difference might seem subtle to some people, but in actuality, the difference is enormous.
One option requires a great deal of mental toughness and resiliency, while the other option requires neither.
That’s why I have always admired optimists, and it’s why I have chosen to live the rest of my days on this earth as one of them.
I have only met a handful of self-proclaimed pessimists in my life. I mean seriously, do you know anyone who proudly walks around town and says that he/she is a card-carrying pessimist?
While I might not know of many admitted pessimists, I can safely say that I am very familiar with the other “-ist” at the party.
I’ll admit, I’ve never understood the realist at all. I cannot even count the amount of times that I’ve heard, “I’m not an optimist, I’m a realist.”
Seriously (and I’m not kidding when I say this), what in the hell does that even mean?
The realist will say, “in the real world, bad things happen and things don’t always work out.”
As an optimist, my reply is: “Well, yeah…obviously. Of course bad stuff happens and things don’t always work out. Who has ever said otherwise?”
Like I said earlier, optimists are fully aware of what’s going on in the world around us. It’s just that it doesn’t stop us from making the choice to consistently expect good stuff to happen and to believe that things will work out.
The realist would likely tell me: “Well, that’s not realistic.”
Let’s take a moment to define optimism:
A tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.” -Courtesy of Dictionary.com
What’s so unrealistic (or unhealthy) about that?
As an optimist, I can tell you that without exception, I always believe that things are going to work out for me. Why, you might ask?
Because believing in the alternative makes absolutely no sense.
No matter what it is that you want out of life, no matter what it is that you’re hoping for, no matter what it is that you’re dreaming of, no matter what is that you wish to become–I can say this complete confidence:
You have no idea if it will happen or not.
There is no one reading these words who can predict the future. And because of that, we have a very real choice that we need to make about our expectations.
The Critical Choice
So, here’s the choice that we all have (and let’s assume that we’re willing to take the necessary action to make it happen):
We can either expect things to work out for us, or we can expect things not to work out for us.
Since none of us know what will happen, wouldn’t it make sense to always focus our expectation on what we want to happen in our lives instead of on what we don’t want?
Yes, many times I have expected the best outcome in situations involving my friends, my family, my job, and my significant other and ended up getting disappointed when those things didn’t happen.
But also, many times when I have expected the best outcome in situations involving my friends, my family, my job, and my significant other, I ended up getting a result that far exceeded my expectations.
Either way, it really doesn’t matter if we believe that the world is conspiring against us, or if we believe that the world is conspiring in our favor.
If we try hard enough, we will always find evidence to support our beliefs.
And here’s the most important point of all–regardless of what we believe, it doesn’t make it any more or less realistic.
Why I Choose Optimism, Always
Unfortunately, no matter what I write in this blog post, there will always be the people who view people like me as bubble-headed morons who spend all day dreaming about unicorns while spamming their friends’ inboxes with kitten photos.
Optimists are so much more than some people might think. Optimists are resilient, mentally tough, and some of the most emotionally intelligent people I know.
I choose to live as an optimist because it makes me feel more connected to the world around me.
I choose to live as an optimist because it makes me more creative and able to deal with life’s challenges.
Simply put, I choose to live as an optimist because it makes life a much more enjoyable ride.
Is living this way unrealistic?
I know my answer to that question. What’s yours?
What are your thoughts on the difference between optimists and realists? Jump into the conversation below and make your voice heard!