curiosity across disciplines

Optimism and puppy chow

The squabble between “glass half empty-ers” and “glass half full-ers” is eternal; a feud destined to only resolve at the heat death of the universe. However, rarely is either side’s ire directed at the most flagrant culprit: the realists.

Realists, despite their haughty veneer, are just pessimists with a PR team.

To make matters worse, pessimism, and by extension “realism,” is a flawed approach. While it’s quicker to the truth, it’s not great for happiness.

This makes pessimism a dysfunctional long-term strategy, owing to the inevitability of self-reinforcing cycles in either direction. Happiness reinforces good things, sadness bad things[1].

Best I can tell, the optimal life strategy (TM) is a well-calibrated cynicism filter existing in mildly delusional[2] state of optimism.

To put it bluntly: lie to yourself a little bit, expecting and post-hoc rationalizing good things, but also keep a hair trigger on your bullshit detector.

To situate myself on this continuum: my default state is an abandoned and derelict office with the PR team on an absolut bender.

As such, I’ve had to get creative with trying to foster more optimism in my life. And this most recent successful rotation around the sun, i.e., my birthday, I came up with something rather helpful.

You know on your birthday you kinda expect everything to just...go well? Like, the universe owes you this one bloody day of the year?

I think that’s how optimists feel...all the time.

Now, if you’re not an already-dyed-in-the-wool optimist, let that sink in. Let it simmer a minute. These absolute twatwaffles’ flounder through life, just like the rest of us, but instead expect it to go well?!

Incredible. I’m unironically flabbergasted.

Digging deeper, I think the “secret” is that no one is naturally 100% optimistic. That’s a surefire path to a public meltdown following a hashtag relatable career of serial self-help MLM speaking gigs. Instinctively, we know not to trust people who are always optimistic.

No, optimism is a choice. It’s just an emergent habit resulting from patience. The trick is to sip the koolaid without chugging the whole punch bowl. The sip—that’s the durable, resilient optimism we’re all angling for.

So what does that look like in practice? Treating every day a bit like your birthday! Cake too.

But let’s first review what doesn’t work: dwelling in the anxiety (the everyday variety). Beyond briefly armoring oneself against bad outcomes, dwelling on what could go wrong is, within a rounding error, pointless. Either you’re prepared or you’re not.

And if you [slightly] blindly expect you are prepared, then even when things do go sideways, you suffer less anxiety, and the cumulative burden is smaller. Alternatively, it just goes well; in which case, anxiety was less than pointless, it was detrimental.

Okay, cool. Right on brother. Ride the waves of optimism. But, does this actually work?!

To answer that, a quick wrap-up story.

The day I started this draft, I was craving something sweet. I didn’t feel like heading to the store though, so it was a Chopped-esque rummage in the pantry, looking for the odd assortment of goodies I could whip up together.

By happenstance, I had everything I need for puppy chow: half-a bag of rice chex, some chocolate chips, always-on-hand peanut butter, and the crowning ingredient, powdered sugar.

So here I am, melting my peanut butter and chocolate together, grabbing the mixing bowl for the “gooey drizzle and toss.”

Everything’s ready to go, already Pavlov’ing, I quickly toss in the powdered sugar for one final mix.

Except, it’s flour. $*#%ing flour!

It was in this moment that I wanted to burn it all down. Drunk with cynicism, I raged expletives for only my cat to hear.

Then, I laughed, came up with this idea, and wrote this draft.

Now, is this all one big elaborate cope justifying the loss of that sweet, sweet puppy chow? Quite possibly. Or maybe by even attempting something constructive I’ve already succeeded?

I leave that for you to decide. Either way, I invite you to consider finding your own “birthday optimism.”

The delusion is, at the very least, a better sweetener for life’s puppy chow moments than a bowl full of powdered flour.

  1. Quite the sophisticated thesis I’m weaving here, eh? ↩︎

  2. Shankar Vedantam of NPR’s “Hidden Brain” fame wrote what looks like a fascinating book called Useful Delusions that explores this very topic. I’ve got it on the bookshelf to read, after having listened to the Hidden Brain episode on the topic. ↩︎