Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Optimism, Pessimism, and Denial: Spilling Tea

Every now and then I like to post on topics a bit broader than just tea: this one was inspired by a post about tea, blindingly optimistic, on Lahikmajoe drinks tea, and begins with a story about spilling tea, but I think it has a deeper message as well.

Lakihmajoe links to an interesting article in Time magazine, titled optimism bias. I read this article, and it did not sit well with me.

After thinking about it for some time, I came to the conclusion that the subject of optimism vs. pessimism and positivity vs negativity is more subtle than this article makes it out to be.

What is optimism?

I think there's a big difference between blind optimism (which can lead to ignoring disasterous problems) and a pragmatic optimistic attitude which embraces the truth but always embraces hope, focuses on possibilities, and works as hard as possible to make the best possibilities into reality. This pragmatic optimist is about seeing things the way they really are, and making the best of them. It is not about fooling yourself, it is about seeing and focusing on the the best possible outcomes in any circumstance, which leads one to take the best possible actions.

An Example of Spilling Tea:

(As a side note, this actually happened to me a few days ago.)

If I spill hot tea on myself and get a very mild burn, I could say: "Oh man, this is so bad, I just spilled hot tea on myself." but this statement is unnecessary--I already have spilled my tea and suffered for it, why make myself suffer any more by telling a negative narrative about it? This would be a pessimistic approach. An optimist would say: "Ouch! Oh man, I'm so lucky I did not burn myself that badly, and I'm glad it didn't land on my laptop. Oh, and look, there's still some tea left in the cup. Okay I'm going to clean up this spill." Optimism is not ignoring the fact that I've spilled my tea, and not failing to clean up the spill. That would be denial.

Optimism & Pessimism in Society:

I think the same can be true of problems in society. Ignoring problems is not optimism, it is denial. To give some examples, poverty, war, political corruption, and environmental destruction are some of the problems facing our society. An optimist does not live in denial that these problems exist; rather, an optimist embraces them and then says: "Hey look, there is lots of war and poverty, but look at this other region of the world which has had less war and poverty...that proves that it's possible to achieve something better." and then starts thinking about ways to bring that reality into being in more places in the world. And optimist says: "Our environment is severely threatened by many human endeavors, but look at how much biodiversity is still left." and then starts focusing on efforts to protect and restore the earth's ecosystems.

Many people are afraid of looking at or thinking about the poverty that exists around them. For example, I have noticed that many commuters do not look out the window when riding a train; on that post I discuss how looking out the window highlights certain problems (poverty, economic ruin, and ecological / environmental problems). Commuters often ride from one wealthy area to another but do not seem interested in viewing the poor areas that the train rides through. This is not optimism, it's denial. An optimist would not be afraid to look at these things, and think about them, and would be able to see the positives--the street in Chester, PA that is clean and well-maintained, demonstrating that even in that run-down community, a large number of people care and are working to keep their community clean and vibrant--or the great egret making use of the disturbed industrial areas near the train tracks, showing that they can't be totally hopeless.

I found that that the Time article Lahikmajoe linked to really misses this key distinction.

I also think that one of the major problems in American society right now is that a substantial portion of the population, media, and culture, is caught up in a false dichotomy between denial and pessimism. I think that the environment, the political system, and numerous other parts of society suffer heavily because of these two perspectives. The pessimists point to the problems, talk at length about what is wrong, and place lots of blame on lots of people, politicians, corporations, everyday people who "don't care". But a lot of the pessimists also feel guilty that they are not doing enough to solve the problems. Those in denial just don't want to think about it, they act as if the problems do not exist, and they take no responsibility to do anything about them.

I would like to call us all to abandon these two perspectives and be pragmatic optimists. Look at all the problems. Do no be afraid. Focus on the positives in the situation, and visualize a good end result. Then take the best course of action. Take responsibility when possible, but do not ever feel guilty just because you are unable to solve some problem, whether in society or your own life. And, as the Time article points out, optimists live longer.

Back to tea:

All of these things are relevant to the world of tea. Poverty and environmental issues in particular are issues in many tea-producing regions. Both economic and environmental issues are a part of sustainability as it pertains to tea production and tea drinking. It is important that we think about these things, and are open about them, but also that we stay optimistic and pragmatic.


  1. I like this perspective. This is the kind of optimism I like to embrace. Although I wouldn't assume that the fact that people don't look out the window on the train implies that they're in denial. Maybe it's sometimes true, but when I think about the reasons why I would choose to look in other directions, that is not one of the motivations that comes to mind. I notice a lot of people like to use their commuting time to read or do other things.

  2. Thanks! I think you're right that it's not safe to assume the connection about not looking out a window being connected to denial...I bring it up more as a metaphor or symbolic connection. But sometimes I do wonder if there isn't a relationship--both involve a lack of focus on certain things outside our own usual circles of attention.

  3. Thank you again for writing such a thought provoking post.

    I guess that by your definition I would be an optimist though I have always called myself a realist as I try to see both sides and then work on what needs to be done. I have always found that anything can be improved upon. Just sometimes it takes a lot of work and hope.

  4. Yes, I think optimism isn't so much about only seeing the good side, it's about choosing to focus on can be a realist, see both sides, but then instead of dwelling on the downsides, focus on the most hopeful and forward-moving elements of the situation!