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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.
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.