The Joy of Practical Optimism

Life is experienced differently – even radically differently – by those who generally see the sun peering from behind a cloud from those who generally see a cloud obscuring the sun. The difference between the two is a difference of vision and interpretation.

Is the world primarily dark and dreary or is it primarily filled with goodness and opportunity? Are the cups of life half full or are they half empty? Does every cloud have a silver lining? Or does every silver lining have a dark and dreary cloud smack dab in the middle of the darn thing?

How you answer such questions indicates whether you are a likely pessimist or a likely optimist. The two do not experience happiness and joy the same way, as frequently as the other, or to the same degree.

Negative Thinking Limits Happiness

Pessimists never run out of things to complain about because the complaints are not really generated by external conditions. They are more the product of the way pessimists think about those conditions. It’s an ailment of interpretation and perspective. The negative person sees life negatively because the negative person is, well, negative.

Positive people are happier because they see more in life to be happy about. By contrast, negative people are less happy because they see less in life that brings them joy, or at least because those things that bring joy are inevitably tainted and tarnished.

Positive Thinking on Trial

And yet lately, positive thinking has come under fire a bit. New research suggests the happy optimist who only wears rose-colored glasses never quite develops the emotional muscles to withstand life’s tragedies.

Good point. Head-in-the-clouds positive thinkers who deny the bus is really smashing through the crowd and heading right at them for fear their negativity will lead to something bad are less positive thinkers and more delusional. But as far as happiness goes, positive thinkers are, in fact, a happier lot.

Still, there is a place for thinking about the worst-case scenarios. Such naysayers and prophets of doom and gloom are always prepared because they are always anticipating the next car jacking, flood, fire, heart attack or car bombing. When they are right, they have two advantages over the traditional positive thinkers.

2 Pessimist Advantages to Happiness

  1. Pessimists are rarely disappointed or caught off-guard. Besides, if the fire really does ignite, they likely brought the burn ointment with them … you know, just in case. The point is, of course, that they are ready for the worst, so the worst might not hit them as hard as it does the sunny optimist.
  2. When tragedy does strike, many bounce back more quickly because they have already lived through several cancers, a handful of nervous breakdowns, a seizure, a temporary bout of Alzheimer’s, 3 or 4 heart attacks and countless social injustices at the hands of countless people … albeit in their minds. But they have experienced a degree of the emotional trauma that the sunny optimist has not. It’s the idea that a pin prick doesn’t likely bother the amputee much.

So if positive thinkers are happier generally and some pessimists may have it easier recovering from sorrow and suffering, is there some middle ideal that weds the best of both worlds, delivering more happiness more consistently?

Introducing Practical Optimism

Practical optimists are, in fact, positive thinkers. And yet, they are not blind to the realities of life. They recognize the negative, work to fix the fixable, accept or cope with or de-emphasize the unfixable, but habitually or intentionally focus their attention and energy on the positive.

This frees optimists to be better equipped to learn from life’s trials. Practical optimists make plans and act on those plans to improve or otherwise prevent a repeat occurrence of the negative event when preventable.

Practical optimists, therefore, feel better about life. But optimists lose jobs, get divorced and fall into ill-health too, after all. The difference is in how they deal with such difficulties. Practical optimists handle trials and tribulations with greater composure, more self-confidence, a greater sense of hope, more effectiveness and resiliency … and with a greater degree of happiness than pessimists.

Where a pessimist will complain about his bad luck for the car crash, the optimist will thank God nothing worse happened.

That single line speaks volumes about the different ways practical optimists and pessimists think … and why optimists live happier lives.


Life was created to be enjoyed. But it is also meant to be a testing ground, a sort of moral boot camp to raise better people. Life, therefore, has, and was meant to have, both sunshine and clouds, warm weather and rain.

Life is what we make of it by choosing whether we will focus on its good or on its bad. Rain falls on the pessimist and optimist alike. The difference is that it ruins the pessimist’s day and provides yet another moment of joy to the optimist.

How has optimism (or pessimism) changed your life?

  • Is optimism a struggle for you?
  • What do you do to remain optimistic?
  • Please leave a comment to share your experiences.
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