Harmful Optimism

On toxic positivity

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

🏛️ Theory

Optimism is harmful when it clouds our perception of reality. Sometimes, in our search for positivity, we avoid looking at reality directly.

Admiral James Stockdale provides an excellent example of this. He’s an interesting and compelling character. One I suggest reading.

He was a practicing Stoic, military man, and reluctant vice presidential candidate. He was known for keeping Epictetus’s Handbook next to him, ready to hand. 

In the Vietnam War, he was taken as a war prisoner. As his plane went down over North Vietnam, he thought to himself “I leave the world of technology and enter the world of Epictetus.” 

While imprisoned, he observed that the prisoners who suffered the most set themselves up for failure with blind optimism. When asked who didn’t make it out of the prisoners of war camp, he answered:

The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.

Jim Collins, Good to Great

This is one of the best examples of harmful positivity I know. Faith in an illusion kept the optimist going for the short term. But when the illusion fell, the despair was shattering.

We often feel the need to tell ourselves stories to feel better. We manage reality by constructing narratives. However, we should interrogate that need. Attack things at the root. See reality as it is. Yes, that’s not always easy. That’s maybe why the Stoics said that philosophy was like going to the hospital. Looking at reality is not easy – especially in the case that Stockdale found himself in.

But it’s a better way to live. Ignorance is bliss until it isn’t. 

🎯 Action

Check-in and see whether there is somewhere in your life where you feel like you’re focusing too much on the optimistic path.

📖 A short and affordable primer from James Stockdale is his Courage Under Fire: Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior

For Epictetus, emotions were acts of will. Fear was not something that came out of the shadows of the night and enveloped you; he charged you with the total responsibility of starting it, stopping it, controlling it.

🎶 Stoic reframing involves thinking about things from a different perspective. It’s important to distinguish that from harmful optimism. Reframings should often be held lightly and not be something that exposes oneself to heartbreak. For example, you can reframe nervousness into excitement. Or, as in the case of Stockdale, see your experience from the Stoic perspective, not the conventional one.

However, there still is a lesson here. Sometimes the need to reframe may overlook the fact that there’s something important that you need to address. Perhaps you are nervous for a good reason. Sometimes one needs to go to the root and address that, instead of focusing on reframing.

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