The Difference Between Optimism and Delusion

Optimism has a bit of a rap against it. Too many people, my former self included, cast aside optimism as a sane perspective on life because they’re making a simple and obvious mistake: conflating optimistic delusion with optimism itself.

I raise this not to make the pedantic linguistic point — I assure you I refer to no dictionaries. Nor an impotent philosophical one — I hate those. But I think there’s an important thing that past-me and far too many people I know and have known in the past make regularly.

What is optimism?

Before we clarify why this error is hard and problematic, lets get on the same page about what optimism is and what value it has. Optimism isn’t seeing someone’s life ruined before you and telling them that it’s all part of God’s plan. That’s fatalism. Optimism isn’t seeing something bad happen to a friend and telling them it’ll surely work out for the best. That’s optimistic delusion.

Optimism is seeing a great building fall and being willing to envision and hope that a better one may eventually rise in its place. And optimism can include the willingness to help that brighter better building rise because you believe in its possibility.

The value of optimism is that you’re cultivating hope. Hope is great and powerful and so long as delusional certainty is kept in check, one of the primary drivers of every good thing that happens in the world. Without optimism, one typically reverts to either pessimism — the belief that things will most likely get worse — or a sort of fatalistic impotence — a belief that things can turn out good or bad but that it’s unlikely that anything you possibly do will have the least influence over it.

I hope you can understand without explanation why I think neither a constant fear for the worst or a cultivated sense of your personal impotence in the world is all that useful. But I’ve defended something like them before. The logic was that if I envisioned the worst, any improvement would pleasantly surprise (rather than inevitably disappoint) me. And this is what I’m driving at: what argument that was for pessimism was actually an argument against delusional optimism, not mere optimism.

And what of this “delusional optimism”?

Delusional optimism feels certain that things will improve. It feels certain that things can never go from bad to worse. Delusional optimism does not honor the crazy and terrible unpredictability of the world. Delusional optimism says that you’ll never have to visit the hospital to see your dying wife. Pure optimism just has hope that it won’t happen soon.

Delusional optimism makes your water heater breaking the day after you had a plumber in to fix your leaking kitchen faucet into a catastrophic rebuff of all that you believe. Optimism just sees that you’ll end up with a new kitchen faucet which is better than the old, and a new water heater that’s a bit more efficient and under a new warranty.

The answer: Optimism without the delusion

It’s not that optimism without delusion is easy. But it is the case that optimism is worth the effort, and delusion is a problem when it’s combined with anything, not just optimism. Understanding the difference between the two is important. Hoping for a bright future and feeling certain you will get one are not the same thing. But hoping for a bright future, and seeing that you do have some power to shape it is hugely valuable.

I wish you the ability to be optimistic. I wish that your optimism be free of delusion.

One response to “The Difference Between Optimism and Delusion”

  1. […] Another thing that this whole argument — that “what once was black and white turns to so many shades of grey” — can lead people to is a kind of self-satisfied nihilistic apathy. And again I don’t think that’s either necessary or appropriate. I believe deeply that to really change reality you must deeply understand it. I also believe that nuanced understanding and nihilistic apathy aren’t complimentary, or even related. Nihilistic apathy comes from a misreading of nuance for irredeemable brokenness. Nuanced understanding sees that things are never completely broken, nor completely whole. (Relevant: a recent essay about optimism without delusions.) […]