Pessimism is a game that’s impossible to win

One of the enemies of happiness, of peace of mind in the moment, is pessimism: the uncertainty, anxiety and fear we have about the future at any given point in time.

Jane Austen, the 19th century novelist, has a line in Emma that goes: “Perfect happiness, even in memory, is not common.”

For many of us, though, memory is the only place where we’re truly happy. Because when we remember any given situation, the one thing that we don’t recall, because it has been erased by the passage of time, is the uncertainty and fear about the future that we held in that particular moment.

(Kevin Barry is an Irish novelist working 200 years after Austen. His thoughts on happiness owe something to this retrospective state of happiness, of a happiness in memory because the memory doesn’t contain the uncertainty, anxiety and fear that we held deep in our psyches in real time. He told Blindboy in a live podcast interview recently, “I’m generally moaning and grizzling at the time, but as soon as I leave a place I become nostalgic for it. I think, Yeah, I was happy back there.”)

So how do we become happy in real time? How do we have that peace of mind in the moment that is a hallmark of true happiness?

Things can go wrong. Things can always go wrong. Things do go wrong.

But how often do things go right? Or at least, how often do things not go wrong in the way that we have projected in our minds?

Retreating into pessimism about the future, allowing ourselves to be anxious about things going wrong, is a game that is impossible to win.

As Tesla founder Elon Musk, in an interview with Joe Rogan in September, said, “I’d rather be optimistic and wrong, than pessimistic and right.”

Pessimism is a game we can’t win, even if we’re right.

And optimism is a game that helps us win, even if we’re wrong.


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