KNOWING THE DIFFERENCE CAN MAKE ALL THE DIFFERENCE

He had one-hundred-and-nine hours to rehearse his lines, and his lines amounted to a mere thirteen words. He could have spent eight hours on each word if he really wanted to. He could have devoted an entire working day to making sure each word came out just right.

You couldn’t have blamed him for doing so. It had cost $25 billion to get him to this point. He’d travelled 240,000 miles. Half a billion people were watching.

It had officially kicked off eight years ago, but this event was the fulfilment of a dream as old as dreams themselves. After centuries of learning, of striving, of fantasising, this was to be humanity’s finest hour. This was to be our first stop on our way out of the cradle and into the big, wide universe. A human being was going to walk on the moon.

The occasion was momentous enough to be recorded to the second. At 02:56:15 UTC on the 21st of July 1969, Neil Armstrong set his left boot on the surface of the moon and delivered those famous words:


Exactly which famous words he delivered have been the subject of debate ever since. Clearly, he meant to say ‘one small step for a man.’ Man and mankind mean roughly the same thing so the sentence makes little sense without the a. But that crucial little letter is tough to hear. NASA’s official transcript includes the ‘a’ in square brackets, claiming it was obscured by radio static in the transmission. The New York Times report from 1969 has the ‘a’ missing. Since then Armstrong has been vindicated and not-vindicated by different audio analyses. Linguists have weighed in, claiming Armstrong’s Ohioan accent disguises the ‘a’ at the end of ‘for.’ Snopes claims Armstrong omitted the ‘a.’ The BBC have flip-flopped on the issue.

These kinds of arguments could go on forever, but let’s just say it how it is shall we? He fucked up.

He fucked up.

These were the first words of an entirely new era of human history, words that will echo down the ages. These were words heard live by half a billion people. They were at the time – and perhaps still – heard by more people than any other string of words in the history of the planet. And he fucked them up.

Extra! Extra! Astronomical fuck-up! Read all about it!

Humanity had come so far. We created tools, discovered fire, invented the wheel, invented language, invented maths, invented science, crafted metal, burnt oil, built cars, built planes, built rockets, flew humans being to the goddamned moon and garbled a thirteen-word sentence. We came down from the trees and blasted off into the heavens and spoke total nonsense when we got there.

The lesson seems clear. Don’t get your hopes up. People will let you down. Even in the midst of historic successes there will be catastrophic failures. Great expectations inevitably lead to great disappointments. In a world where things so often go wrong, optimism is a mug’s game.

Of course, many will disagree. ‘Look on the bright side!’ they’ll say, ‘We still went to the moon! Everyone knew what he meant to say. Plus it’s funny that he messed up a bit.’ They’ll say an optimistic attitude is the best way to deal with things going wrong. Optimism is not so much the cause of disappointment as its solution.

This kind of confusion about the benefits of optimism versus pessimism clouds a lot of our thinking. Newspapers and magazines ricochet between the two: one month optimism is the answer and there are studies to prove it, the next month pessimism is the answer and there are studies to prove it.

The Atlantic serves as a useful case study. Here’s a selection of headlines over the years: ‘Pessimism, The Key to Happiness?’ (June 2010), ‘A Pessimist Manifesto’ (September 2010), ‘How the Power of Positive Thinking Won Scientific Credibility’ (April 2012), ‘Why We’re Born Optimists, and Why that’s Good’ (December 2012), ‘The Benefits of Optimism Are Real’ (March 2013), ‘A Case for Pessimism’ (March 2013), ‘Why Do So Many People Hate Optimists?’ (December 2013), ‘The Secret to German Success: Pessimism?’ (April 2014), ‘The Upside of Pessimism’ (September 2014), ‘Optimism is the Enemy of Action’ (October 2014).

What’s going on? Why is it so difficult to decide which is best? Scientists have sent people to the goddamned moon. What’s causing all this confusion?
                                                         
Shoddy thinking – that’s what – the kind of shoddy thinking that would have Socrates rubbing his hands in anticipation. What’s common to each and every one of these articles is that their authors have failed to think critically about what optimism is. These authors have read scientific studies and laboured to translate them into beautiful, readable prose. They’ve crafted anecdotes to draw the reader in. They’ve injected humour and emotion. But at no point during this long, arduous labour of love did they think to ask the most basic question: what is optimism?

Had they done so, they almost certainly would have consulted a dictionary. Had they gone to dictionary.com, they would have come across this:

Optimism
noun
1. a disposition or tendency to look on the more favourable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favourable outcome.

Like Armstrong’s famous line, this definition features a crucial, little ‘a’-word that’s easy to miss: and. See it? Those bastards at dictionary.com have squeezed two definitions into one slot! The rascals at Merriam-Webster have done the same! And those good-for-nothings at Cambridge!

The ‘and’ is crucial because there really are two definitions here. The first half says optimism is ‘a disposition or tendency to look on the more favourable side of events or conditions’. The second half says optimism is ‘a disposition or tendency to expect the most favourable outcome.’ These are different things! It’s pretty clear that you could be an optimist in the first sense without being an optimist in the second sense and vice versa. Optimists in the first sense say ‘The glass is half-full’ and ‘Look on the bright side.’ They’re being optimistic about what’s already occurred. Optimists in the second sense say ‘Dream big’ and Expect the best. They’re being optimistic about what will occur. These are different kinds of optimism, so let’s draw a distinction. Let’s call optimists in the first sense interpretation-optimists and optimists in the second sense expectation-optimists. Then we can draw a corresponding distinction for pessimism: people who focus on the bad sides of things are interpretation-pessimists and people who expect bad things to happen are expectation-pessimists.

The failure to make these distinctions has infected almost all of our thinking about optimism and pessimism. I believe it's also contributed to the confusion surrounding which is the better attitude to have. Check out the way both kinds of optimism are mashed together in the Wikipedia article:


And how about this Guardian article? It begins as if it’s very much about interpretation-optimism:

“The glass can be half-full, or it can be half-empty, depending on your outlook on life – or on which side of the bed you get out of any particular morning. But can optimism or indeed pessimism really affect your health?”


But then the quotation from scientist Eric Kim makes clear that the study is about expectation-optimism:


“Our work suggests that people who expect the best things in life actively take steps to promote health,” lead author Eric Kim of the University of Michigan said at the time. “Optimism seems to have a swift impact on stroke.”



Nonetheless, the author fails to heed the difference, and ends the article by again talking about interpretation-optimism:



“And if you are a glass-half-empty person desperately trying to see it as half-full for the sake of your health, there is bad news from yet another study carried out in 2006, showing that we learn to be positive or negative in childhood. 


And if you thought philosophers would be immune to this kind of error, check out this email from Alain de Botton’s School of Life:


This isn’t just a minor terminological issue. If scientific studies into optimism and pessimism teach us anything, it’s that adopting certain attitudes can make a big difference to our lives.Certain attitudes can make us happier and healthier, help us live longer and work smarter.* We just need to know which ones! Without our interpretation/expectation distinction, there’s a good chance we’ll pick the wrong type. With it, we’ve got a better chance of using the science fruitfully. As Drake sings, knowing the difference can make all the difference. Philosophy can make your life better.



*NOTE: Of  course, correlation does not imply causation. But I think these studies come sufficiently close to establishing a causal link by, for example, controlling for external factors and observing that attitude-changes precede any benefits.

I’m glad the lyrics of this song fit because it works nicely with the outer-space-theme I’ve got going on in this post. The song is the first in a genre that can only be described as ‘Music to Set the Mood aboard the International Space Station’. If for some reason you were going to make a Spotify playlist titled ‘Sex in Space’, can you honestly say this song wouldn’t be number one? Seriously.


But that’s a question for another time. We’ve still got to figure out which of our four attitudes are best. Should we be interpretation-optimists or interpretation-pessimists? Should we be expectation-optimists or expectation-pessimists?

I believe that our new distinction makes the answer clear: we should be interpretation-optimists and expectation-pessimists. We should be looking on the bright side but never getting our hopes for the future too high.

This seems to be the conclusion borne out by the scientific studies. When Toshihiko Maruta concludes that optimism makes you happier and healthier, he’s talking about interpretation-optimism. He writes: "How you perceive what goes on around you and how you interpret it may have an impact on your longevity, and it could affect the quality of your later years." When Lisa Neff warns that optimism can harm your relationship, she’s talking about expectation-optimism. She writes: “optimism can be a liability, as expecting the best may prevent individuals from taking proactive steps when confronted with difficulties.” When Bryan Gibson warns that optimism can make you a bad gambler, he’s talking about expectation-optimism. He writes: “optimists were more likely than pessimists to have positive gambling expectations and report maintaining these expectations following losses… the pessimistic tendency to disengage is beneficial.” When Frieder Lang concludes that pessimism can help you lead a longer, healthier life, he’s talking about expectation-pessimism. He writes: “Pessimism about the future may encourage people to live more carefully, taking health and safety precautions.” When Julie Norem advocates for The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, she’s talking about expectation-pessimism. She writes: “When people are being defensively pessimistic, they set low expectations… They end up performing better than if they didn’t use the strategy.”

We should strive to be interpretation-optimists and expectation-pessimists. In a sentence, “the glass could break tomorrow, but at least it’s half full.” Adopting these two attitudes is the best way to deal with life’s disappointments and appreciate its joys. They might even mean we can forgive poor Neil for fluffing the line.

Like PhilosophYe on Facebook!

Popular posts from this blog

Against Ambition

WHY DO WE FIGHT TO LIVE?