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Reflections on Optimism and Misery: The Quest for a Positive Place in the World

Dr. Russ,

I am often asked the question:  With so much misery in the world, how can one be optimistic?  My standard answer is:  Without optimism, how would we survive the misery?  Optimism provides the perspective that keeps us from succumbing to misery, from “waving the white flag” of hopelessness and helplessness, from just lying down and allowing ourselves to return to dust.

Fighting against misery is only a battle that optimists have a chance of winning.  Fighting misery in the world whether in Libya, North Korea, or living on the street can only be won by those with great optimistic stamina; a stamina built upon a foundation of years of practicing the skills of optimism.

Hope is carried in the emblem on the flag that leads the optimists into the battle with misery.  Optimists are the warriors following behind the “flag of hope” that believe in the cause for which they are fighting, are willing to get knocked down again and again, and to get back up, only to be knocked down again, to get up again, and to never give-up the quest to make life on earth a more positive place for everyone.

Five Tips for Acquiring the Optimistic Stamina to Manage Misery

  1. Misery is a “reality,” but it does not have to be “mental reality.” Optimism is our self-determined and personally constructed “mental reality,” and the only hope against the pessimism of being absorbed into the helplessness of misery.
  2. Optimism trumps the reality of misery when we can grasp onto a cause greater than ourselves.  The “cause” gives us a reason to endure and overcome the misery.
  3. Optimism skill and stamina are needed most in the face of miserable circumstances, but if we don’t practice the “mental reality” of optimism as we go through the moment-to-moment daily trials and tribulations of life, we will never be ready to face “misery.”
  4. Some years ago, social psychologists concluded that “misery” only likes “miserable company.”  I call that a “pity party of pessimists.”  Optimists refuse to wallow in misery or their own or other’s creation.  They demand effort, action, performance, and a positive attitude of themselves and those around them.
  5. For me February, now just past, is the “psychologically longest” and most miserable month of the year.  As I reflect on my personal misery, this past February, I know it was small scale stuff; a time to practice my optimism skill and build stamina so that if I am every faced with really large scale stuff like the rebels in Egypt and Libya, I will be prepared to be part of an overpowering “army optimists.”  With that “practice perspective” I could even look forward to living out the movie “Ground Hog Day,” by re-living February 2 over and over until I got it right.  And, that is what optimism is all about, doing-it-over-and-over until you get it right.  It is only with that “spirit” that we can keep up the good fight against misery to seek the “Promised Land” whether it be in the vision of the Middle East Rebels of today or the legacy of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
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