Optimism or positive thinking: Thoughts about living with hope

By Bruce Bradfield, Ph.D.

I’ve always struggled a bit to wrap my head around the idea of positive thinking, Popular psychology stresses that we think positively about those areas of our lives which cause us strain and sadness. The idea that we are often taught is that we should resist dwelling in our despair, and that we fight to hold on to a belief that everything will turn out for the best. The lesson that we are often taught goes something along the following lines: Negative thoughts attract negative outcomes. Positive thoughts attract positive outcomes.

Somewhere in this lesson is the belief that we as human beings have the power to improve our lives through holding tight onto imagined outcomes which amount to us feeling good, safe and healthy, and abandoning thoughts relating to the feared outcome that our lives will not turn out as we hope they will. Take for example the experience of depression. Sadness is a reality in life. Often I find myself working with a person who, for whatever reason, and usually a very important and deep reason, feels endlessly sad. When I am talking to a person who is struggling in this way, I am often struck by how incredibly difficult the depressed person finds it to imagine that they will, somewhere down the line, no longer feel the deep sadness which has over-taken their life. Depression often feels like an experience in which we are locked, and it arouses the fear that we will stay trapped in the depressed state, and there is nothing that we can do about it.

It is often at this point in a person’s struggles that they are told to think positively. It is here that people who are suffering in their sadness are encouraged to believe that, if they start to focus on feeling better, and they start to do the things that help us feel good in life, for example keeping busy, exercising, spending time with friends and the life, their situation will improve. And so we see that when people are encouraged to think positively, they are also encouraged do behave in ways which change their behaviour, so that they can help themselves get better.

What worries me is that when people living with depression are encouraged to think and behave in more positive and life-enhancing ways, they begin to feel quite ashamed by just how difficult they find this. In my mind, being told to think positively is the same as being told to ignore all the thoughts and feelings inside that do not correspond with the definition of positive thinking. Being told to think positively is the same as being told that all thoughts which don’t correspond with the definition of positive thinking are unhelpful, unhealthy and ultimately amount to self-sabotage. It amounts to being told that you must believe something that you don’t believe to be true. I would like to replace the word positive with optimistic.

A feeling of optimism is one which I believe to be absolutely crucial to emotional wellness. Let me explain what this word means for me, and why I use this word when talking with my patients about the struggles with which they are living.

Optimism, in my mind, is not so much about believing that good feelings and a better life will return, as it is about becoming able to hope that, whatever happens, life can surprise us. Our future is not the same as our past, and it is in the ability to imagine that there can be a difference between the two, whatever the nature of that difference is, that optimism lies. It is in the space between the known realities of the past, and the as yet unknown realities of the future, that we have the freedom to create for ourselves a feeling of optimism.

Optimism, as I see, is a freer concept that positive thinking, because it does not imply that the future can be knowable. To think with optimism is not to discount the possibility that the future can be a place of pain, loss, fear and loneliness. Instead, optimism invites in the possibility that whatever reality has in store for us, we have something inside ourselves which enables us to endure it. Optimism, for me, equates with hope rather than faith or belief. It is the hope that we will find strength when reality begins to hurt us or frighten us. Optimism is an effort to back ourselves, even when we fear that we will be undone by reality. And so, it is not the same as positive thinking, because it allows for the fact that we can’t predict future reality.

The best we can do is try our best to accept the unpredictable flow of reality, and hope to be able to meet reality with grace and courage. In my mind, this speaks to the idea of hoping that our basic humanity will endure above all. It is hoping that, in the face of adversity, we will be able to hold ourselves together, even though we fear that we are falling apart. Optimism, I think, is also about forgiving ourselves when we let ourselves down in this, and hoping that, next time round, we will be able to hold on to what we hold dear about ourselves when the world shakes us up.