In continuation with this series of dualities of life, I would discuss the duality of pessimism and optimism in this blog. Actually, this duality is also a continuum in the sense that there is no fixed point which separates pessimism from optimism. Both these frames of mind are defined by the context of one’s circumstances of life. However, it is important to deconstruct this duality because it has insidious consequences on one’s life. While the consequences of pessimism on one’s mental health are well known, the optimism, particularly an undue optimism, is also detrimental to one’s mental health. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the nature of this duality.

Let us think about what makes one a pessimist or an optimist. Apparently, our past experiences decide what to expect from life. Therefore, it is legitimate to think that circumstances of our lives shape our perception of what future holds for us. However, our perception of our future is based on far more complex processes. Our pessimism or optimism arises, not just from our past experiences, but also from our irrational mood swings. More importantly, these mood swings, which are caused by chemicals present in the brain, are sometimes fixated by the structural changes in the brain. Thus the mood swings, which are originally supposed to be temporary mechanisms that reflect the immediate circumstances, become long lasting, if not permanent, due to these structural changes in the brain. As a result, our perception of future is no longer realistic, but it is distorted by these uncalled for structural changes in the brain. Thus, the natural mechanisms that the Nature had evolved to cope with the dynamic life, becomes out of sync with the reality, thanks to our brain’s tendency to make all our memories permanent. These structural changes in our brains which were originally meant to create long term memories, also make permanent our mood swings which are supposed to be short lived.

It is this mismatch between the original objective of making permanent memories and the unintended consequences of making permanent the transient mood swings, that is at the heart of our undue pessimism and undue optimism. As in the case of most of our mental health problems, the problem doesn’t really lie in how we respond to the reality but it lies in the disproportionate and mistimed manner in which we respond to the reality. It is perfectly healthy to feel elated or saddened due to the circumstances of our lives. However, when our emotions are disproportionate or mistimed that needs to be labelled as pessimism and optimism. This is precisely what happens when our moods are made permanent by our memory making mechanisms. Thus, if our short lived sense of happiness is made permanent, we would look at the future with optimism. Similarly, when our short lived sadness is made permanent, we would look at the future with pessimism. Thus, our perceptions of what future holds for us is compromised by this unintended fixation of our moods by our brain’s tendency to make our memories permanent.

The real trouble with this duality of pessimism and optimism is that we have no way to find out when our perception of what future holds for us, is realistic, or unduly pessimistic or unduly optimistic. We take our mood at that moment to be genuine and act accordingly. Thus, our undue emotional response unfairly shapes our plans to face the future and thereby the future itself. Therefore, even though we are free to shape our future, our freedom to shape our future is compromised by our emotional distortions. More importantly, we are not even aware of this handicap.

The question that arises is what can be done to act without being a pessimist or optimist ? Is there any way to anticipate the future without being influenced by our moods ? The answer to these questions is partly yes and partly no. Yes it is possible to think of what future holds for us without being influenced by our emotions. In fact, this is precisely what modern management teaches us. However, the problem with such strategic thinking is that essentially it is amoral. Therefore, there is a risk in following such methods because it leads us to morally grey behaviour. This is where the answer no comes into picture. We cannot act in a totally rational manner unless we are willing to overlook the moral perspective of our plans. However, in order to think in moral terms, we need to invoke our emotions. It is not obvious at the first sight, but our emotions arise basically from our morality. Therefore, we can not act rationally and morally unless we involve our emotions. As a result, we are back to square one. If we involve our emotions while thinking about our future, we run the risk of compromising our ability to think what the future holds for us. On the other hand, if we want think rationally as well as morally, we have to involve our emotions.

Therefore, it seems that whether we like it or not, we condemned to live with the duality of pessimism and optimism. More importantly, there is no way to escape this predicament.

In my next blog, I would discuss the duality of free will and destiny.


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