Optimism is not Wishful Thinking
I am known in part for my reputation as an optimist. I like that reputation. In my experience, it is the optimists that get things done, make a difference, and energize people around them. I like being counted among them. But optimism is not the same thing as wishful thinking. Optimism is active; it is believing that I can do something that might make a difference in my part of the world. Wishful thinking is passive; hoping that the world might do something that makes a difference for me.
We start learning about optimism as children. Take the storybook, The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper, for example. In just a few illustrated pages we get the sense of believing that we can make a difference if we give it our best effort. Optimism is the difference between "I think I can" and "I think I can't." It presents the recognition that each of us are called upon to do and people are counting on us to make our best effort.
But we also start learning to fear optimism, "I think I can, but what if I can't." What if I don't know the right things to say or do? What if my best effort is not good enough? And we start learning to think that maybe it is better if we sit back and let others take the risks that are involved in being an optimist. At that point we start to confuse optismism with wishful thinking, mistaking "I think I can" with "I wish someone else would."
In my experience, optimists are also realists. When they look at a half-full glass, it is not that they miss the fact that it is also half empty. The difference is that they see it as a glass full of opportunity for using the available resources for introducing a preferred future. They are aware of the realities of what is; but they look at them differently and are intrigued by their opportunities and the challenges that they present. "I think I can ..."
The day before I went in for my first round of surgery and chemotherapy, I paid my money to go on a week-long bicycle tour eight months later. There were those who saw it as a heroic act of optimism, but there were few who expected that I would actually be able to do it. The ten hour surgery for my cancer was the equivalent of a major renovation and remodeling of my peritoneal cavity followed by an extended, heated Drano powerwash (the chemotherapy). I rode 400 miles during that weeklong tour eight months later.
The part of the story that I overlooked for a long time was the 1,600 miles that I put on my bike getting myself back in shape to ride that tour. I overlooked the significance of the work that I did getting back to the point that I could pedal up and over the kinds of hills we encountered on that tour. This was the day-to-day work that was involved in just being on the bike because it is an important part of my life. It's part of how I define quality of life, and the work necessary to be able to ride 80–90 miles per day.
During my second round of surgery, my sister sent me a "powered by optismism" t-shirt. (see left)
When I started thinking about this article, I realized some important distinctions between optimism and wishful thinking. Principally, it is that perspective of "I think I can," and the willingness to roll up one's shirt sleeves, break a sweat, and do the work.
Andy Lester taught me a lot about hope and the future, which has given me a way to frame my sense of optimism. Basically, he identified how our sense of hope for the future tended to follow our dominant future story. If the future that we imagine for ourselves is a feared future story (the sky is falling and no matter what I do things are going to be bad), there is often an absence of any sense of hope. The glass is half-empty and getting emptier. If the imagined future story is fatalistic (things are the way they are because that is the way they are, and no matter what I do they will continue that way), we tend to have a resigned sense of hope for the future. Sort of like the glass is half-empty and there is nothing I can do about. But he also observed that almost everyone has a preferred future, the one that they would like to imagine themselves living. What he discovered in his work was that among people who lived with a focus on their preferred future story, there was a tendency to have a much more hopeful outlook and to experience life more in the direction of that preferred future story. The glass is half-full of resources and half-full of space to fill.
Optimists are people who look at what is and see opportunities to make a difference or to create something new. But it is what happens next that makes the difference. They are also people that say, "We (I) can do this ...," and then roll up their shirt sleeves, engage their imaginations, and go to work. My experience with optimists is that they are people who seek to live out their preferred future stories. It is a choice they make. This makes them exciting and energizing to be around.
One other thing that I have learned about optimists is that they expect to encounter failures as part of the journey. They do not expect everything to work out the way they would like it to. Engaging opportunities and challenges with a positive outlook doesn't come with guarantees of success in everything; there are usually plenty of failures—learning opportunities from an optimist's perspective. But there does appear to be a correlation between engaging life's opportunities and challenges with optism and movement toward a preferred future.
Dr. Chris Hammon is the Executive Director of the Wayne Oates Institute and Affiliate Faculty in Leadership for the Drew University Theological School's Global Online Doctor of Ministry Program.