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Xander was a pessimist. Then he met Cho. She was a self-proclaimed optimist. She was also in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). This confused Xander. Why would an optimist be in therapy? But Xander liked Cho. She was really smart, and also kind. So, he learned about optimism and it changed his life.

What is optimism?  What is pessimism? They are beliefs about the future. They are expectations about the future.

Aaron T. Beck, MD, the founder of CBT, observed that we all have core beliefs and that they determine how we experience our lives. When they are “positive” we feel peaceful, clear, connected. When they are “negative” we suffer.

If we have “negative” core beliefs, they may be about ourselves, or the world, or the future. If we have all three, Dr. Beck defined that as the “cognitive triad” of clinical depression. This terrible condition occurs when a person has developed a negative view of themselves (I am worthless), a negative view of the world (no one cares about me) and a negative view of the future (things will only get worse). CBT is powerfully effective when a person is clinically depressed, to get free of this dark place. It is also powerfully effective in preventing depression.  

Pessimism is just one leg of this cognitive triad, and so Xander was not yet clinically depressed. Nevertheless, Xander felt down most of the time, and didn’t get much enjoyment out of his life. He spent his days looking for mistakes and problems. He was tuned in to the “negatives”.
Research has shown that expectation is a powerful force acting on our perceptions. We see what we expect to see and we experience what we expect to experience.

A famous study asked a group of radiologists to examine some x-rays, just as they would if they were looking for cancer. Unknown to the radiologists, there was a gorilla in the x-ray. This picture of a gorilla was the size of a matchbook and had been put into the x-ray by the researchers to see if the radiologists would notice. Very few of them did. In fact, 83% missed the gorilla even though eye tracking had been used to confirm that they had looked right at it!

This is remarkable to consider. These radiologists saw the gorilla, but because they did not expect a gorilla on an x-ray, they did not realize that they had seen it. It did not reach the conscious part of their mind. They were looking for what they had seen in the past, an x-ray without a gorilla. So they were looking unconsciously.

We have all unconsciously expected things to be true in the present, based upon what we have experienced in the past. The great news is that the past does not have to determine the present. We can change our expectations, and in so doing we can change our experience.  How do we do this? We become conscious of our expectations, or in the framework of CBT, our core beliefs.

Xander had grown up with pessimist parents, and so he had a core belief that this outlook was “realistic”. He believed that optimism was “naïve”. Xander was a pessimist about optimism.

Cho could see this about him, because she had also grown up in a family of pessimists. She knew the signs. But Cho had learned CBT, and she had learned how her mind worked. Cho had learned that optimism and pessimism are simply different ways by which to filter information. She learned that when she was focused on a stressful thought, she felt a stressful emotion. She knew that she could learn to become aware of the way she felt, and because she wanted to feel better, she could question each stressful thought.

For example, consider half a glass of water. A pessimistic view would be that the glass is half empty, focused upon what is lacking. A pessimist might have the stressful thought that “there isn’t enough”. Using CBT, we would question this. Is there enough? Enough for what? A pessimistic view is that because there is only half a glass of water, this will not be enough in the future. We can’t know the future though, of course. It is in our imagination.

So to believe the thought “there isn’t enough” is a cognitive distortion, because it is an argument with reality. It means missing the present facts. There is water. Half a glass of water is enough. Just enough. Just the right amount in fact because that is how much there is.

Also, when we believe the future will be “bad”, and this causes us to be stressed in the present, it impacts our decision making. Which of course impacts the future. In other words, our core beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies.  

Before meeting Cho, Xander had seen himself as a victim of outside forces beyond his control. Afterwards, he discovered his unhappiness stemmed from his own unconscious beliefs about the future.  When he learned how to notice these beliefs about the future, they no longer swelled up and knocked him down. He recognized that his fears were based upon thoughts and that thoughts can be questioned.

Xander started to feel better. When he no longer saw through a lens of lack, Xander began to enjoy his present more.  He learned that Cho, despite being an optimist now, was still in CBT in order to continue to make this conscious choice. Cho practiced CBT preventatively. She considered CBT to be a tonic.

Pessimism and optimism are not physical, biological traits. We are not born Eyeore or Pooh Bear. Optimism comes from our mind. So, if you find yourself believing fearful things about the future, it can help to look around you, right now, wherever you are. To return to the present. To find what is good and peaceful and true wherever you are right now. The moment we realize we are not present, we are present. When we do this, we are no longer trapped in a negative belief about the future. We all can choose what to focus on. By using our finest treasure, our mind, each of us can choose to cultivate an optimistic view of life.

As Piglet says to Pooh, “Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”

“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh, after careful thought.

Piglet was comforted by this.

Drew, Võ & Wolfe (2013). The invisible gorilla strikes again: Sustained inattentional blindness in expert observers. Psychol. Sci. 24(9):1848-53.

Beck, Aaron, T, Rush, A. John, Shaw, Brian F., Emery, Gary (1987).  Cognitive Therapy of Depression.  Guilford Press.