Optimism and Vigilance

Our experience has been that people who are optimistic, even those who strike us as unduly optimistic, lead more satisfying and fulfilling lives than those who are not optimistic. Provided they do not push too hard on reasonable limits of optimistic prediction, optimsts seem to do better than most people.

Furthermore, there is a lot of scientific evidence that optimism results in improvements in many aspects of life. (for example in work performance and physical health).

On the other hand, a major study of what leads to a life well-lived, the Harvard Grant Study, indicates that “Anticipation”(pages 114-116) is a factor that leads to a better life. Anticipation is looking at a wide range of risks and benefits to prepare for most problems that might come up and planning ahead to minimize the impact of those risks.

Yet, anticipation can go too far. One form of that is called “hyper-vigilance”, and it can be very damaging. It is a known aspect of post-traumatic stress disorder.

A major aspect of hyper-vigilance is an extreme form of anticipation. People who have experienced intense trauma, such as multiple military deployments, are often so vigilant that even a few hours of sleep can terrify them because they cannot be vigilant when they are asleep.

So, pushing anticipation too far is a serious problem but is extra optimism also a problem?

A major barrier to thinking about such issues is the tendency for psychologists and self-help gurus to break things down into “black or white” categories.  For example, “optimism and positivity are good”, but “wariness and pessimism are bad”.

Christine Olmstead’s comments on yin and yang drew our attention to a Buddhist view that too much Yin can become Yang. If you are not familiar with the contrast between Yin and Yang, click here for a quick explanation.

This Buddhist view is consistent with that of Aristotle, who argued that vice results when a virtue is overdone or underdone.

Optimism, when taken too far, may take the form of having unrealistic expectations or even of delusional grandiosity or mania.

What we think works is optimism tempered by anticipation. That means looking on the bright side of things while also adjusting your expectations by carefully monitoring the situation you are in, and, in particular, balancing the payoffs you can get from your choices against the losses that may be entailed when you act on them.


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