Optimism, The Blind Man’s Gamble

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Are you a gambler; do you like to take unrealistic chances?

I'm guessing you said ‘no' to that question.

Are you optimistic; not all the time, but on balance?

If you said “yes” to this question but “no” to the first, I'm going to call you out.

Optimism is a blind man's gamble.

Cultivate optimism.

That's advice you'll hear from psychologists, self-help gurus, and bloggers alike.

Optimism is considered the silver bullet – the one characteristic that happy people have and sad people don't. More than that, it's considered something that can be developed.

Even better, it's considered altruistic – those that are more optimistic are happier. Those that are happier are in turn a better spouse, parent, friend, and employee.

Optimism not only makes you happier, it also makes you more successful.

Without optimism, we wouldn't have Google or Facebook. Ask a startup founder how they judge their chances of success, and they will say, “oh, maybe 50 to 70 percent.” This, despite them being intelligent. This, despite them knowing that less than 10% of startups succeed. It's optimism that keeps them hopeful, and that keeps them ignoring reality.  When I launched a technology startup at the age of 19, it was optimism that kept me going, even while I should have known my chances of success were less than abysmal.

The psychologist I admire most, Martin Seligman, wrote a book called Learned Optimism. I read but have not followed the advice that lay inside.

I am the happiest that I have ever been in my whole life. It's thanks to rationalism. 

I may have been happier when I was a kid; I don't remember. Of my memories, those that I am forming right now are the happiest.

Every day I: exercise, eat healthy, meditate, journal, cultivate gratitude, talk to new people, learn, challenge myself in ways that I really enjoy, and visibly grow.

I still have an extremely long way to go, I've only begun what is a truly long journey. But I have begun.

I make goals and actually accomplish them. I have never before in my entire life done that. It's because of a down-to-earth self-awareness that my current trajectory led to mediocrity and repeated failure.

Let me explain.

Optimism is a blind man's gamble.

I have many friends who don't like their current job. They optimistically assume that their next job will bring greater happiness. Sometimes it does; usually, it doesn't.

I have many friends who don't like the shape of their body. They optimistically assume that their next diet or exercise regime will stick and work out. Sometimes it does; usually, it doesn't.

I have many friends who like to make New Years resolutions. They optimistically assume that they will succeed this year where they have continuously failed in the past. Sometimes they do; usually, they don't.

I am not exempt from these decisions.

At the age of 16 I recognized the life changing power of meditation.  I have meditated more in the past 2 weeks than in the six years prior.

This is what I now believe: if you wish to be happier, learn to cultivate optimism. Positive psychologists are still working it out, but for now self-applied cognitive behavioral therapy seems a reliable course of action. A daily gratitude journal also works well to increase optimism.

But if you wish to be the happiest, cultivate rationalism.

As a rationalist, you will recall that:

  • 50%-96% of diets fail.
  • 88% of new year's resolutions fail.1
  • 50% of first marriages,  67% of second marriages, and 74% of third marriages end in divorce.2
  • despite your optimistic denial of death – you will die.
  • money and prestige only marginally increase happiness, and yet you will still relentlessly pursue them.3
  • you've read hundreds of blog posts on productivity and happiness and yet have done little to act on them.

I don't blame you – it's not a question of ‘insufficient' willpower.

The first step towards change is acceptance.

The first step towards achieving that diet, keeping your relationships happy and healthy, pickup up a yoga habit, and transforming yourself into a wellspring of happiness is accepting that you will probably fail.

It's accepting that those strong feelings of conviction just aren't enough.

It's accepting that the latest tip you've read on willpower or goal achievement just isn't enough.

It's accepting that you are not equal to the task.

Your optimism isn't inspiring you to greater heights. It's keeping you from recognizing your failure. 

People like to say America has a self-confidence crisis. I say we have an optimism crisis.

We're told to try again when we fail. We're told that failure is normal. That next time will be different.

Those that know otherwise; that can't will themselves to be irrationally optimistic, are considered maladjusted.

Acceptance is the first step.

The solution isn't to read another self-help book or blog post, get excited that this time it will work, and then go off and fail again.

The solution is self-understanding.

I wish I could tell you what would work for you; what would not only get you motivated but keep you that way.

But I can't. Each of us has a different set of psychological levers in our brain.

I've slowly started discovering how to pull mine. I'll talk more about that tomorrow.

Many well-intentioned experts and bloggers have also discovered how to pull their levers. The problem is that when what worked for them doesn't work for you, they assume you must be lacking willpower. You assume you must be lacking willpower.

So here I say it. Forget about achieving all of those goals which you have repeatedly failed. You are ill-equipped to the challenges that you have selected for yourself.

You are lacking a base of mindfulness and self-power, without which you will only repeat your failures.

If you want true change, you must explore, learn, and develop your base of awareness and willpower.

Keep reading those blogs and books. But synthesize your own theory. The theory of you. Of how you work; of how you can be truly motivated; of how you can transform into your ideal, most happy self.


This is post 14 of the Month of Happiness. Check out the rest!Day 1: Psychostimulants: They might give you happiness; they might give you a heart attack
Day 2: How to Harness the Power of Laughter: An Easy, Effective, and Infinite Source of Joy
Day 3:  Three Good Things, A Small Gratitude Exercise for a Large Boost of Happiness
Day 4: The Right Way to Fake a Smile For Health and Happiness
Day 5: Emotional Contagion: 5 Ways to Get Your Environment to Work for You
Day 6: Ditch Porn – It’s Playboy on (Dopamine Draining) Steroids
Day 7: Why I “Remain” an Introvert, Though the Science Suggests Extroverts are Happier
Day 8: Yoga – It Isn’t Just for Female Hipsters
Day 9: Watch More TV; It Makes You Happy!
Day 10: Kaizen: Accomplishing Big Goals with Tiny Steps
Day 11: Omega-3 Supplementation – Good For The Heart & Vitamin Shoppe’s Bottom Line
Day 12: Good Sleep: Not Optional for Happiness and High Performance
Day 13: One Tab at a Time: 7 Tips to Browse the Web More Mindfully
Day 14: Optimism, The Blind Man’s Gamble
Day 15: A Story of Change, The 5 Willpower Techniques That Create Action
Day 16: Zest, The Spice of Life… or is it?
Day 17: Exercise: Better than Zoloft
Day 18: Relaxation: The Magic Tonic That Cures Headaches & Relieves Indigestion
Day 19: Spirituality for the Irreligious – Getting the Benefits Outside the Cathedral
Day 20: Meditation – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Beautiful



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9 thoughts on “Optimism, The Blind Man’s Gamble”

  1. I agree with the content, but not with the title.

    Acceptance, absolutely necessary. Success depends on so many things. Even if forget about uncontrollable factors such as right time and place, luck whatever….we still have to consider our strengths, weaknesses, personality, behaviour, how we present ourselves to whatever challenge etc.

    So rationalism, yes absolutely necessary.

    What I don’t agree with is that optimism doesn’t necessary mean being optimistic without reason. Of course, some people are like that. But that’s blind or lazy optimism. Some people just believe things will turn out for the better because they can’t be bothered to do any work. Others do the work, but they are either too afraid or don’t think about second guessing their cause.

    But there is another route. You can be rational. Do everything you suggested, and once you have done that rational exercise, then you could be optimistic. Or maybe what we call optimism is the BELIEF that we can make things happen. When I’m optimistic about things I can’t control, I call it hope, and I accept that it may not happen. When I’m optimistic about things I can control, I call it belief because I know what needs to be done, and the positive energy drives me to do it while remaining cheerful.

    • I think you are in the minority, perhaps without realizing it. It is, in fact, possibly because of your journaling that you understand at a level most do not your fundamental thinking processes.

      I’m not talking about blind or lazy optimism, about being afraid or being lazy. I’m talking about being human. That is, I think we are all to some degree blind.

      The combination of my life experience and my knowledge of behavioral economics and cognitive psychology makes me strongly believe that to be human is to be unrealistically optimistic; to be optimistic without rational reason.

      How else to explain the phenomenon that humans repeatedly are optimistic that their future selves will be different, despite 1) base rate information to the contrary and 2) past life experience to the contrary?

      Is this a disagreement of semantics? *I don’t mean that in the usual dismissive way, I think our choice of words, especially as bloggers, is extremely important.

      Are you suggesting that optimism be defined as the belief that we can make things happen, based on an acceptance of self? If so, I disagree. Once again, I believe you to be in the extremely small minority. Although we like to think of ourselves as rational agents, as humans we are riddled with cognitive biases, which on balance lean towards over-estimating our ability to influence the future.

      And I am as of now unaware of any effective, long-term methods of counteracting these biases (for example, I am a member of lesswrong.com and overcomingbias.com; community size of about 20-50k, and among us all we’ve learnt and tried almost everything; Thinking Fast and Slow, the seminal work of cognitive biases, offers only partially effective extremely temporary techniques).

      Now I’m probably going to write a post on hope vs. optimism, because after thinking about it a bit, I’m not sure what the difference is.

  2. Definitely food for thought, Amit. I totally agree with your point that people assume that they must be lacking in willpower if something doesn’t work. There is a better way. And every day I see people making choices with their health (including myself) that they optimistically think won’t come back to bite them.

    You’ve thought about the concepts far more than I probably ever will. I’m looking forward to reading your next post.

    • Thanks Claire! Do you have any thoughts on what the better way is? I myself am still learning, and would appreciate any of your wisdom!

  3. Wow what a discussion but I think I’m with Dolly on this one. I agree Amit that humans are irrationally optimistic and your statistics back up your argument but as you mention it’s the optimists in the world that make things happen and persistence and self belief are required to manifest your goals. I’m optimist about loosing weight and keeping it off at the moment because it is working and i believe I’m not going to fail because my mindset is backing me up! I don’t believe I’m being irrational. Is it not just about your level of commitment that makes it work?

    • Ah but that’s the thing. Why does a normal human being repeatedly fail at the same goal? I suggest that it’s because people are unrealistically optimistic. You suggest it’s because of a lack of commitment.

      I believe being unrealistically optimistic and lacking commitment are one and the same. For example, understanding that I am a failure machine, I quadruple downed on my goals – I currently have five goal achievement/commitment systems working concurrently.

      My hope is that if people recognized that optimism is not enough to achieve goals, they would invest in commitment systems (e.g. accountability buddies, goal journal, etc…). I think the key is to be rationally optimistic – I’m confident this time around that my meditation habit will stick, but I’ve got many good reasons to believe that this time will be different.

      Hopefully the same is true of your diet!

      • So your goal is to make us more rational or realistic with our optimism by making sure that when we set goals, we have the backup systems in place to remain focused and committed? Then I agree with you but to call us failure machine is a little harsh 🙂

  4. Pingback: Self-Compassion – For Real Men.

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